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Original Issue

Attack of the Promo Monsters

Why do sports events need car-crushing Godzillas and Sèance Nights to attract fans?

One Saturday night last summer, 14,300 fans streamed into Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum to watch an arena football game between the hometown Rockers and the Detroit Drive. The crowd included Joe SixPacks, guts straining against their T-shirts; oh-so-cool young professionals in khaki shorts and baseball caps; rowdy dudes with their dates; a smattering of families; and...women in bikinis.

That last group requires some explanation. Last season, the first for the Rockers, women in skimpy bathing suits were admitted at reduced rates to the team's five home games—strictly as a promotional gimmick. Though male fans were offered the same deal as the women, they were allowed a more relaxed dress code: More men wore shorts than Speedos, and one guy even sported a grass skirt.

What's more, on a platform above the end zone at the south end of the Coliseum, the promoters installed a hot tub. In a scene that more closely resembled Love Connection than Monday Night Football, two men and two women were chosen in a random drawing from the bikini sections to spend the game percolating in hot-tub bliss.

Anyone who attends sporting events these days must be aware that promotional happenings have increased in epidemic proportions at the nation's stadiums and arenas. Promotion directors say this is due to a couple of factors: 1) Sports venues have to compete with network and cable TV and even whole new sports, and 2) there aren't enough sports fans out there to fill all the stadiums, so p.r. types have to come up with novel ways of attracting people to events.

Some efforts to boost attendance have been downright weird. Last summer, for instance, the Class A Fort Myers Miracle invited fans onto the field at the Lee County Sports Complex after one game to watch horror movies like Night of the Living Dead, which were projected onto a screen made of bed sheets. This postgame show was billed as Field of Screams. Two months earlier the Miracle held a Sèance Night. After the game a woman in a sequined gown fingered a straw hat that had once belonged to Thomas Alva Edison while 1,500 fans channeled to help her make contact with the inventor of the electric light. "Fort Myers, right up the road, was the winter home of Edison," says Mike Veeck, general manager of the Miracle. "The way I figure it, Edison is the unsung hero of night baseball. So we hired a medium to raise his spirit." And, no doubt, to raise the numbers at the turnstiles.

Equally curious are some of the promotional strategies used by the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. In May 1990, in a salute to the reunification of Germany, race fans there watched as a yellow school bus, fake missiles strapped to its sides, hurtled over a facsimile of the Berlin Wall and detonated the wall in mid-flight. Before a race at Charlotte in October 1990, a 40-foot-tall mechanical robot with fire shooting out of its nose rolled around the track picking up and crunching cars in its arms. The robot's appearance had been announced in a TV spot that used film borrowed from Godzilla movies, complete with dubbed English out of sync with the movements of the Japanese actors' mouths. "I honestly don't know how anything we do relates to racing," says Eddie Gossage, Charlotte's p.r. director. Me neither.

At halftime of a polo match in 1991 at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, a flack tossed 4,900 dollar bills and one $100 bill out of a helicopter to the crowd below, sending all those Windsor wannabes scrambling for the falling currency.

What will the promo guys come up with next? The mind reels. An interview with Steve Schanwald, the Bulls' vice-president for marketing, revealed that Chicago Stadium fans could be in for quite a show on the inevitable night Michael Jordan becomes the NBA's alltime scoring leader. "People spend 2½ hours at our stadium," says Schanwald. "The game itself is only 48 minutes. But our fans are paying a lot of money to be entertained. I look at Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas. Theirs is the hottest act on the Strip. They use elephants, white tigers, show girls, music, lasers. They perform great magic within a total entertainment experience. Why should our standards be any less than theirs?" Why indeed?



Lisa Twyman Bessone, a free-lance writer, lives in Chicago and often writes for Sports Illustrated.