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NBA and Hollywood Hoping Kids 'Like Mike' Enough to Become Fans

Marketing: The film featuring basketball stars is part of a push by pro leagues and studios to fill arenas and theaters.


There is more riding on 20th Century Fox's new movie "Like Mike" than a share of this summer's fastbreak box office.

Behind the fanciful plot line about a boy who is carried to pro basketball fame by a pair of magic sneakers is a bottom-line strategy by the National Basketball Assn. to cast its brightest stars as salesmen for the league. Among them: Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets, Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings and Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors.

"There aren't a lot of 7- to 12-year-olds that will watch a whole game, but we may be able to suck them in with a good story," said Gregg Winik, executive vice president for NBA Entertainment. And the hope is that when the video comes out, Winik added, kids will watch it "over and over and over again."

No longer able to rely on athletic feats alone to deliver new fans--and their money--the NBA and other professional sports leagues are aggressively cultivating Hollywood as never before.

As they grant film crews unparalleled access to games and stand-out athletes, they're negotiating production deals, exerting more influence over scripts and taking greater care with how their images are portrayed. League officials, such as Winik, have even earned screen credits.

This summer, the National Football League will throw open the door to one of its secret bastions--preseason training camp--for an HBO reality show focusing on the Dallas Cowboys. The NFL is banking on the second-year series to satisfy die-hards but also attract women and casual fans with behind-the-scenes stories of players and their personal struggles.

Major League Baseball has a senior manager for "presence marketing" who lobbies studios and movie makers to weave the sport into their films. The National Hockey League recently prevailed on Nickelodeon to feature its "NHL Breakout" roller hockey tournament on the cartoon series "Rocket Power."

And NASCAR, already one of television's top sporting draws, announced a movie deal last month in which pop singer Britney Spears will play the daughter of a team owner in a film that will include real race footage, drivers and pit crew action. The sport hopes to get the attention of kids who may not even have their driver's licenses.

"We're not interested in making a movie just to make a movie," said Paul Brooks, a NASCAR vice president in charge of the sport's new Los Angeles office. "We're interested in making a movie to grow a sport."

That attitude has created a new dynamic in Hollywood, which has feasted on sports themes since movie cameras captured Bob Fitzsimmons' stunning defeat of "Gentleman" Jim Corbett in the 1897 heavyweight title fight. Filmmakers realized big box-office returns when they began featuring sports newsreels and cast athletes in dramatizations or bit parts starting in the early 1900s.

The leagues have been slower to see the box-office marketing potential of their properties. But faced with aging fan bases and fierce competition, league officials have reversed field.

One of the earlier signposts came in 1992, when the NHL awarded Walt Disney Co. a franchise team that would be named after its hit movie "The Mighty Ducks." Two years later, the NFL worked closely on the filming of "Little Giants" and won a rewrite of a scene to include top players and famed broadcaster John Madden.

Now, the leagues are taking it a step further, seeking a fusion with Hollywood that sells two products at once, filling theaters and arenas.

Pro leagues offer Hollywood a built-in fan base, considerable marketing prowess and the kind of authenticity that not even a studio can create.

Take Disney's "The Rookie," based on the real-life story of a 35-year-old science teacher who became a relief pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Major League Baseball broke with tradition when it allowed a camera crew 90 seconds to film actor Dennis Quaid trotting in from the bullpen while the crowd cheered during a Texas Rangers-Devil Rays game.

As part of the movie's promotional blitz, Quaid hosted a segment of MLB's "This Week in Baseball," and the league ran trailers for the movie on ballpark Jumbotrons across the nation.

But the NBA is at the forefront of marrying its interests with Hollywood, insiders say. League officials said they were involved with the making of Warner Bros.' 1996 movie "Space Jam" starring Michael Jordan. "Like Mike," however, is in a league of its own, combining the talents of a young rap superstar with giants of the NBA.

"The NBA has taken a much more aggressive role in the production and cooperation in getting this movie to market than we've seen in the past," said Dean Bonham, chief executive of a Denver-based sports marketing group. "It takes cooperation to a new level."

"Like Mike," a $20-million film rated PG, opens today against the highly anticipated "Men in Black II."

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