- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Image problems? What image problems?

Judging from lagging TV ratings and stagnant attendance, NBA fans might be less than energized by the league's low scoring, boring isolation offenses and lack of fundamentals. But corporate America isn't.

More than two dozen Fortune 500 heavyweights are paying six-figure sums to use the NBA's All-Star weekend as a platform for major marketing campaigns. Whether it be sponsorship of one of the weekend's feature events or a TV ad at $300,000 for 30 seconds on NBC during Sunday's All-Star Game at MCI Center, the NBA remains red hot as a promotional vehicle.

"This weekend is essentially our hottest ticket of the year for everyone involved," said Ken Derrett, the NBA's senior vice president of marketing partnerships.

Nowhere will the corporate love-in be felt more than at NBA Jam Session, to be held tomorrow through Sunday at the Washington Convention Center. NBA Jam Session is an interactive basketball theme park that stands as the game's answer to the NFL Experience. It will be awash with the logos and banners of Nike, AT&T;, America Online, IBM and more than 10 other key sponsors. More than 90,000 fans are expected to attend Jam Session over the four days.

The competitions, broadcast nationwide and to 209 other countries, all have corporate sponsorship as well: AT&T; for the long-distance shootout, America Online for the 2ball competition, Real Networks for the Slam Dunk event and Schick for the Rookie Challenge.

"This has really become our annual showcase, an important opportunity to reach out to all of our constituencies. It's a very key event for our corporate sponsors to reach out to the public with Jam Session, and we have a very large grass-roots effort connected with this, too," Derrett said.

If the NBA's regular season games are so boring, then why all this excitement and corporate interest? The All-Star Game is an unabashed celebration of the game and, thanks to its many attractions designed for children, is considerably more accessible than the high-dollar, only-in-prime-time NBA Finals.

But even most basketball fans acknowledge the All-Star Game is not what it used to be. Gone are the high-flying dunks of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. Nearly gone are jaw-dropping series of the can-you-top-that passes. Instead, the game is now often marked by who cannot play because of injury, with this year's absentees to include Alonzo Mourning, Grant Hill and possibly Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The All-Star weekend, largely through Jam Session, remains attractive to sponsors because it provides the chance to interact directly with consumers. That interaction, for some companies, is greater than any other time of the year.

"We want to be visible, and this event affords a great deal of person-to-person contact with current cardholders, as well as future prospects," said Judy Tenzer, American Express spokeswoman. The financial services giant is holding a series of exclusive events for cardholders, including a VIP party with Magic Johnson. "The popularity of the NBA around the world also gives us a huge opening to extend our brand globally."

For some companies, being involved with the NBA All-Star Game is a must regardless of whether interest in the league is up or down. Trading card company Fleer has been the presenting sponsor for Jam Session since its 1993 inception. In that time the company has seen the collectibles market boom, bust and slowly rebuild again. It scored a coup last year when new spokesman Vince Carter won the slam dunk competition and catapulted into international fame.

"It's an extremely competitive market out there. Topps is out there. Upper Deck is out there, and we're all chasing the same collectors and future collectors," said Andrew Lilien, director of marketing for Fleer. "The All-Star Game, since it moves every year, is really important for us because it gets us directly in front of a new set of fans who are definitely sports fans but may not be card collectors yet."

Previous All-Star host cities have generated between $30 million and $55 million in economic impact, much of it through the spending of the NBA and its corporate sponsors.

This year, the NBA alone booked more than 5,000 hotel rooms, and more than 12,000 fans, players, NBA staffers, media and sponsors will descend on the city.

Washington's impact total is likely to trail other cities because the All-Star Game will temporarily depress some other activities in an already vibrant tourism market. And since the District is already well-known around the globe, it will not gain the international marketing benefits of the game as much as last year's host, Oakland, Calif.

Regardless of where the All-Star Game is held each year, though, the one constant is its steady, unrelenting growth.

"We keep adding new events, new wrinkles each year," said Ski Austin, the NBA's senior vice president of events and attractions. "That's the challenge to reinvent this thing every year and make it indigenous to the host city."

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