Marc Reede, a Beverly Hills-based agent who books some of the top motivational speakers, claims that he has seen a post-speech photograph of his client Dan (Rudy) Ruettiger ($10,000 and booked well into 1996)—he of the sepia-tinged Hollywood movie Rudy, in which young Ruettiger defies all odds and follows his dream into a Notre Dame football uniform—being carried out of an auditorium atop the shoulders of tearful health-products executives in gray suits.
Rudy is the reigning king of the Overcoming Adversity subcategory of the sports-idol business-motivation scene. Since the recession-born lecture lull of three to five years ago, the market forces shaping the sports-speaker universe have become so strong that all sorts of niches and subspecialities have been formed. A company in a slump can order up an Overcoming Adversity screed that focuses on impediments to success as hackneyed as Ditka's working-class mill-town youth, as narrow as Bradshaw's inability to throw to his left or as profound as the talk by former umpire Steve Palermo ($10,000) about his paralysis after being shot while attempting to stop a robber.
The Spiritually Oriented motivational niche is occupied by motormouth college-basketball TV analyst Dick Vitale ($18,000) and overtly "Christian" motivators such as Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden and Gene Stallings of Alabama (both $5,000). Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams ($10,000) and former Chicago Bear linebacker Mike Singletary ($15,000) have both learned to pop God in and out of their addresses depending on their reading of audience preferences. Early on, Williams was told by veteran bookers that he was too serious and pious on the podium, so now he warms up with the longest string of one-liners in the business.
In the $75 billion U.S. meeting-and-convention industry, the sports-talk business earns only several hundred million dollars a year, but it has grown large enough to house an entire sub-niche dependent on the memory of Vince Lombardi alone. In the 1970s Green Bay Packer old-timer Jerry Kramer ($5,000) was one of the first speakers on the business talk circuit to lean on tales about his late coach. But today nobody relies more upon the Lombardi mythos to maintain an elevated income than Vince Lombardi Jr. ($3,500), who looks like his father, sounds like him and even speaks in brief and rugged platitudes reminiscent of his famous dad.
At the bottom of the oratorical hierarchy—though not necessarily at the bottom of the pay scale—reside the traditional Meeters and Greeters, current and former athletes who might go up to the podium to say hi and tell a few stories but who are essentially present to retail only their celebrity. Muhammad Ali will go almost anywhere for a weekend for $60,000, but he won't give an extended talk. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson each will show up for $35,000. Joe Montana quotes $75,000 for a non-motivational appearance, as does George Foreman—who thus far has resisted taking the time to memorize a motivational sermon designed to offer a corporate kick in the pants.
In the middle of the 19th century, business audiences were addressed almost exclusively by politicians and clergymen. With the dawn of the Gilded Age and a revitalized rhetoric of salesmanship, business figures were ushered in as after-dinner speakers on the banquet circuit. In the 1920s Babe Ruth single-handedly raised the value of a sports celebrity's handshake, autograph and rough-hewn banter. By mid-century, as the media intensified the popular thrall attending sports figures, athletes began to show up at business events to tell stories and shake hands. "Appearances" became essential components of many pro athletes' incomes.
But inspirational sports oration (as opposed to the related but more bottom-line-oriented motivational form of today) was not popular until the advent of the talking Olympians: Glenn Cunningham, Billy Mills, Jesse Owens and the golden-tongued "vaulting vicar," Bob Richards, the 1952 and '56 Olympic gold medalist in the pole vault. Richards became famous for gracing the front of Wheaties boxes tipped by members of the baby-boom generation, but all the while he was crisscrossing the nation giving speeches, sometimes for free and sometimes for $5,000 a talk. "The difference is that I never did it for the money," says Richards, who was paid $30,000 a year for his Wheaties endorsement. "I honestly did it—old-fashioned as it sounds—to build character, to let people feel the thrill of winning a gold medal and-then to tell them what it takes. I've given 14,000 speeches over the past 40 years. I did 163 speeches for IBM alone. But then again, I was an ordained minister before I went to the Olympics, and most athletes back then could barely pronounce their names. It's all changed completely in the past few years. The money is astounding now, and the speeches are so slick."
That Ditka's $2 million a year in lecturing income equals the salary budgets of entire college humanities departments is the result of a confluence of cultural curves. On the one hand, sports celebrities continue to fill a gaping hero gap, and the successful coach is constantly cast as a master of organizational dynamics. On the other hand, many of the trendiest business-management theories derive from the imagined dynamics of a successful sports team.
"Management is dead," professional business motivator Ray Pelletier proclaims during his talks. "Coaching lives."
Meanwhile, the perception that employees need regular doses of "motivation"—as opposed to cash bonuses and other more traditional incentives—has been intensified by the abiding presence in economic life of abject fear. These days companies suddenly downsize, and positions and related benefits disappear as quickly as...well, coaching jobs. Competition is ever more intense in the world of buying and selling, and the imperatives of daily victory appear ever more similar to those of making the big play under pressure in front of a screaming crowd.