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More Bang For The Buck Sports Contests Give Fans, Sponsors A Way To Cash In

Thomas Heath Washington Post

When a 26-year-old investment banker from New York City named Lance Alstodt nailed a 35-yard field goal for $1 million at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu on Feb. 2, he set off a roar throughout Aloha Stadium and was instantly swarmed by a jubilant throng of NFL players.

In the days ahead, people talked more about the guy who made the million-dollar kick than the game itself. The phenomenon also launched the kick’s sponsor, Hershey’s Chocolate USA, on a public relations tear.

Alstodt appeared on the “Today Show,” “Late Show with David Letterman,” an MSNBC news program, and countless newspapers and radio stations around the country. The Hershey $1 million Pro Bowl Kick has been replayed on hundreds of newscasts.

Over the weekend, Alstodt presented the Hershey jersey he wore for his kick to New York’s All Star Cafe, where it hangs alongside jerseys worn by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and New York Rangers star Mark Messier.

Marketing experts estimate that Hershey would have had to spend tens of millions of dollars to get the positive publicity that it has received from one football flying through uprights. The company’s sponsorship cost only a fraction of that amount.

“It’s all about feel-good and spin,” said Seth Matlins, a senior vice president at Rosslyn, Va.-based ProServ Inc., which served as Hershey’s consultant.

Such contests - half-court shots, 10-foot putts, pitching a strike - are booming these days as professional sports teams and leagues try to find new ways to make money and their sponsors try to reap a bigger bang from their advertising buck.

Instead of relying only on stadium billboards and commercials to boost their brand name, consumer companies from Coca-Cola to Nokia Corp. telecommunications have discovered contests using everyday fans as a way to get noticed. But, until Alstodt took the field, these contests largely had been met with mild public relations success.

Hershey may have changed all that by finding a different way to run its contest.

“Hershey’s really boosted the odds,” said Chris Hamman, a risk assessor for SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based company that insures contest events.

After the kick at last year’s Pro Bowl went only 10 yards, Hershey’s inaugurated a playoff system. Instead of selecting one winner from a national drawing, Hershey picked four finalists and sent them to Miami a week before the contest for a playoff that would do two things: find the best kicker and get that person accustomed to pressure.

The contestants each kicked the football from 10, 20 and 30 yards and were judged on a point system. The result was Alstodt, a second-string high school soccer player who had no problem making the 35-yard field goal, and was brash enough to withstand the accompanying pressure.

By ensuring a capable entrant, Hershey also boosted its costs. By adjusting its selection process, experts estimate that the candy bar giant increased its insurance premium and total cost for the event by up to 25 percent over 1996. The cost this year was estimated at about $100,000, according to industry figures.

Sports contests didn’t become a big business until April 14, 1993, when the Chicago Bulls plucked a fan named Don Calhoun from his seat, gave him a basketball and watched as he sank a three-quarters-court shot to win a $1 million contest sponsored jointly by the Bulls, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and Coca-Cola.

“Up until then, nobody thought people could make these shots,” said Adam Walker, an account manager for SCA, which handles contests for about half of the NBA’s teams.

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