Marquee Group, an International Management Team That Matches Agents, Promoters and Marketers, May Be the Look of Sports To Come
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99
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Trager got his start with NBC at WNBC-TV in New York, then went to KNBC in Los Angeles, where he performed in various sales management positions with enough distinction to get voted the top sales executive in the broadcast advertising business. He was vice president of sports sales in 1973, then vice president of NBC sports from 1973 until he left in 1980.
Later, as executive vice president at D'Arcy, McManus and Masius Advertising, Trager managed the Anheuser-Busch account, putting together the company's $25 million commitment to the fledgling cable sports channel, ESPN. The deal legitimized ESPN by providing an impetus for other advertisers to fall in line. ESPN then had considerably less than a million viewers; now it has between 65 and 70 million. Trager was later responsible for all the marketing and licensing in the United States for the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984.
Like Trager, Mike Letis joined the Marquee Group at its inception, when the company acquired SMTI. Bob Gutkowski calls Letis "the God of horse racing," and the Breeders' Cup, which Letis helped develop, has turned into the largest single day of thoroughbred racing.
"The Breeders' Cup Championship is the most important new sports championship event since the Super Bowl," Letis says unabashedly. "It is the only event where you get four hours of live horse racing; the most important day of racing of the year." Set in the fall, the telecast usually runs against the stiff competition of college football but still manages to get clearance from 90 percent of NBC affiliates. His love of racing led Letis to be the executive producer of Run to Glory, a documentary film about the 1986 Breeders' Cup in Santa Anita, California.
A diverse talent as a marketer, designer and producer, Letis also produced the ABC "Superstars" shows in the 1970s, which still appear in reruns. He also worked with advertiser J. Walter Thompson to get Major League Baseball involved with the "Pitch, Hit and Run Competition" for teenagers, a close cousin to the National Football League's "Punt, Pass and Kick."
Letis can barely contain his enthusiasm for the future of the Marquee Group. "One thought: sports belongs to the public. In the last decade, all you had to do is listen to sports talk radio to realize how much a public thing sports really is and how much it's part of the fabric of the culture. Sports belongs to the public; so does Marquee," he pauses, drawing on his Ashton Cabinet. "You buy a piece of us by buying stock and you own a part of the people that we represent. You're in the deal! And it's late in the game for this--it's almost 2000. People can't own stock in other sport companies. Because we're the only public company; we're for the people. What's the measure of your credibility in sports? There was no measure before. Now there's a measure: how much Marquee stock do you own? That's the measure, and it's going to be the measure." A victorious laugh goes up around the table.
The largest, most genuine laugh belongs to Chet Simmons. The 70-year-old Marquee cofounder has been involved in TV sports since the 1950s, long before people knew what the possibilities for sports programming were. But he's as much at home describing Metallica and Billy Joel--two of the artists for whom Marquee manages tours--as he is describing the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style in which TV once covered sporting events.
Simmons's first company was called Sports Programs Inc., which produced sports events independently and had a contract with ABC to produce all their sports in the mid-'50s. The company eventually was bought by ABC, where Simmons worked in the sports department. He left in 1964 to join NBC Sports, where he went from sports director to vice president of sports to the network's first president of sports, from 1976 to 1979. NBC was king then, lording over the sports universe with rights to broadcast Major League Baseball, including the World Series and the All-Star Game, professional football--and Wimbledon.
He witnessed the start-up of ESPN, the first 24-hour sports station, and was its inaugural president. He recalls the date: September 7, 1979. "I had a pretty good feeling what it [ESPN] could be. Once we got national rights to the big four leagues, plus the NCAA rights, I thought it would be a success, and it was." He stayed nearly three years before leaving in July of 1982 for the USFL.
But after a history of sports business start-ups, Simmons says that Marquee has been the most exciting. "I think the residual is as important as the start-up. The start-up is the first year and you're really juiced up and energized and you're inventing new things. [In most new enterprises, though,] after the first year it becomes too much of a pattern....But [with Marquee] year two just kept going--it just kept building itself. The second half of the third year has been even more exciting. Because now we've acquired companies and we're being looked at by several entities. We have a greater, broader vision of what you can do by getting involved in entertainment."
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