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John Wooden Trophy Image Stands Tall, but Sponsor Drive Falters

Advertising & Marketing

L.A. Athletic Club, which will present the collegiate basketball award Friday, weighs tradition against pressure for aggressive marketing.

April 01, 1999|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Absent the sterling reputation of its namesake, the John R. Wooden Award would amount to little more than a stylish blend of zinc alloy, brass and polished walnut. Largely on the power of the legendary UCLA basketball coach's good name, the Los Angeles Athletic Club has positioned it as the sport's version of football's famous Heisman Trophy.

Yet, as presentation expenses for the 23-year-old award grow--a top collegiate athlete will be honored with it this Friday night--the private club has been forced to weigh cherished traditions against the new need for sponsorship dollars to defray the costs. And the LAAC's decision to control how the trophy's image is used has dramatically narrowed the award's appeal to sponsors.

"If a potential sponsor can't use the [trophy's] image in advertising, the question is, what are they getting out of the deal?" said Lance Helgeson, senior editor of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report. "So if all you're getting is your name on the program and a quick mention during the event, that's not a lot for your money."

The LAAC has scrambled to find corporate sponsors in the decade since club officials directed the Wooden staff to find alternative funding. Executive Life Insurance Co. was forced into bankruptcy shortly after signing on as the award's first sponsor. Subsequent deals with a trading card company and a sports equipment manufacturer were short-lived. Imagyn Medical Technologies Inc., the club's current sponsor, was delisted by the Nasdaq small-cap market last year after its trading price sunk below minimum levels.

The LAAC could make its sponsorship search easier by tapping into traditional sources of sports-marketing funds, observers say. But out of deference to Wooden, who retired in 1975, the club rejects revenue from beer and tobacco products companies. The trophy's caretakers also nixed a lucrative deal with a national fast-food chain that wanted to turn the highly respected award into a popularity contest by passing out Wooden ballots at its restaurants.

"There's nothing wrong with commercialism," said Richard "Duke" Llewellyn, the longtime Wooden friend and LAAC executive who created the award. "I just would not subject Coach Wooden to anything I didn't think wasn't worthy of his name. And I would hate to have to tell Coach that a fast-food place was going to be advertising with pictures of our coaches and players."

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Wooden, 88, is revered in large part because he demanded that his players excel in the classroom as well as on the court. Although Wooden recognized the value of athletic ability, he believed that success was driven by such attributes as faith, integrity, self-control and honesty. The annual trophy is designed to recognize athletes who display those traits--and each year, a handful of leading players fail to make the Wooden ballot because of academic shortcomings.

Executives at New York's Downtown Athletic Club, which houses the 65-year-old Heisman Trophy that is awarded to a college football player each year, voice similar concerns.

"You can't get greedy," said Rudy Riska, executive director of the Heisman Trophy Trust. "What you don't want to do for the sake of making money is to put yourself in a position that would come back to haunt you."

How long can the purists' attitude survive?

"Old-style athletic clubs like the LAAC and the Downtown Athletic Club are increasingly going to be run by younger sports-marketing professionals," said David Carter, a consultant with Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. "As a result, you're going to see a continuing trend toward sponsorships."

Sponsorships and TV deals are considered a necessary evil in the $5-billion sports-marketing industry, which is awash in awards and trophies.

"To survive, an award has to break through the clutter by constantly reinforcing its heritage," Carter said. "But to do that degree of marketing takes corporate sponsorships, because these clubs don't have the budgets."

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Marketing has always lingered in the background of the Wooden and Heisman awards. Clubs that initially footed the bill for trophies viewed them as an effective way to market their facilities to potential members. More recently, college athletes recognized that the trophies could bolster their value when they turned professional.

Both awards have been part of television deals in recent years--the Heisman with ESPN and the Wooden with Fox. The clubs remain title sponsors of the trophies, but each has signed up presenting sponsors that, in return for six-figure payments, receive limited rights to use the awards in their marketing. And both clubs are recognizing the value of enlisting past winners to appear at golf tournaments and social gatherings where they mingle with the sponsors' guests.

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