Before the U.S. men's team officially qualified for the trip to Barcelona—heck, before it had even run through its first warm-up drill—these star-spangled superstars were already the most famous collection of athletes in Olympic history. Within weeks after the original 10 NBA All-Stars were announced last September, they were bounding across America's TV screens, carrying the hopes of a nation dreaming of Olympic gold, as well as the hopes of a corporate America dreaming of just plain gold.
"No doubt about it, this is the biggest, most expensive marketing deal in the history of sports," says David Burns, president of the Chicago-based Burns Sports Celebrity Services.
"With the exposure this team is getting, there are young people out there who think the Olympics are just one big basketball tournament," says John Krimsky, who, as deputy secretary general of the U.S. Olympic Committee, handles that organization's business affairs.
Commercial tie-ins are common enough in Olympic sports—for example, McDonald's has long been a sponsor of the U.S. gymnastics program, while Visa has aligned itself with track and field—but the scope of corporate involvement with the U.S. basketball team breaks new ground: Forty companies arc spending approximately $40 million in promotion and advertising to trumpet their connection to the team.
Of the 40 companies, 14 have each forked over about $750,000 to USA Basketball, this country's governing body of the sport, for the right to call themselves official team sponsors. The other 26 companies have aligned themselves with the team through separate licensing agreements that enable them to sell official USA Basketball products. The AJD Cap Company of Richmond, for instance, is "the official maker of USA Basketball caps." That's not a particularly sexy handle except in an Olympic year, when USA Basketball is inextricably linked with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. "We know a lot about raising money through sponsorships, but the NBA is far more sophisticated in dealing with the licensing of properties," says Krimsky. "We've taken advantage of that to sell many, many more products."
Other companies, while not official sponsors or licensees of the team, are using the appeal of the American team to spice up sales. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is giving away an NBA Dream Team video in a subscription campaign, and USA Today set up a special toll-free number a few weeks ago so its readers could phone in to pick their Dream Team starters. (Some 10,000 responded, choosing Jordan, Magic, Karl Malone, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing.)
Nike has created an ad in which the six Olympians it has under contract ( Jordan, Robinson, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton and Chris Mullin) are portrayed as cartoon monsters, stomping and crushing everything in their path. The words Olympic or United States do not appear anywhere (that would be an overt violation of licensing restrictions), but the commercial is an obvious reference to the Games.
NBC, the network that is broadcasting the Games, began with a bearish attitude about the Dream Team but has now gone bullish, according to Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports.
"Even with great players involved, noncompetitive routs do not generally make for great TV, and that was our concern at the outset," says Ebersol. "But as we've traveled around and seen the attention these guys are getting, we realized what a big story they really are. This team is simply quite a story, no matter what the result of its games. The power of these guys is phenomenal."
What makes "these guys" so attractive to television, advertisers and, presumably, consumers? Three things: They are already known quantities in the advertising business; they are playing the globe's fastest-growing sport; and they are considered to be an absolute lock for the gold medal. That's a trifecta that is unique in the history of the Olympics.