CHICAGO -- Not even the gravity-flouting Michael Jordan can guarantee his air time over the hardwood floor of the Chicago Stadium. But this season, a sports marketing firm is guaranteeing courtside corporate advertisers a minimum of three minutes' worth for their messages in each televised Bulls home game.
As viewers follow the bouncing ball and soaring bodies, the camera never blinks, picking up in the backdrop of virtually every shot a not-too-subtle billboard selling beer or auto supplies or athletic apparel.
Imported this season to eight National Basketball Association arenas by a Madrid-based company, the billboard holds the promise of rendering obsolete the traditional and increasingly cluttered corporate signage at sports venues.
"It's so simple and it's so effective," said Robert Fallen, the 29-year-old president of Sport F/X in Chicago and the Midwest representative for the firm Adtime USA. "This is going to become a very dominant form of courtside advertising."
Here's how it works. A series of 3-by-5-foot sign panels extend for 70 feet along the facing of the scorer's table and an additional 10 feet along each of the baselines. A single advertiser's message or company logo is displayed on polyvinyl sheeting, housed on rollers in each of the modular panels.
During the game, on computer command, the messages are scrolled to reveal the next advertising image. An Adtime employee, working alongside the computer operator controlling the panels, monitors the television broadcast to time the on-air exposure for the sign, producing a broadcast affidavit of the quality and quantity of the sponsor's signage on camera.
The Adtime contract with the Bulls and the seven other NBA teams permits as many as 14 advertisers per game, but forbids changing from one message to another, which take less than a second, while the ball is in play.
"This is one of the most innovative things to come along in sports marketing in a long time," said John McGowan, the president of McMarketing Services in Chicago. "Someone finally built a better mousetrap."
McGowan, who once worked as sports information director at Marquette University in Milwaukee, added, "It has an imposing presence on the [television] screen. And when Michael Jordan is walking down the court in front of your logo, who's going to take his eyes off him? This is really a step beyond the old flashing frames of popcorn and soda at the drive-in movie theater."
Adtime USA generally negotiates a flat fee with each team, then sells advertising packages to corporate clients.
"The Bulls are one of the hottest tickets in a major marketplace," Fallen noted. "They're the highest-rated road team in the league. All their home games are televised. And we had to pay a lot for the Stadium, because when you've got No. 23 [Jordan], all the bargaining power is in the Bulls' hands."
(Some of the bargaining power also rests with NBC-TV, which has the NBA's national over-the-air TV contract this season. The network's contract with the league specifies that local corporate advertising be covered up during national broadcasts.)
Adtime's president, Avelino Ponte, expects to expand the venture to 20 NBA arenas and a number of major college basketball sites next season. He anticipates the system also will come soon to professional hockey and tennis as a means of reducing the congestion of competing corporate logos encircling the playing surface.
Alan Friedman, publisher of Chicago-based Team Marketing Report, a monthly newsletter that covers sports marketing concepts, said the Adtime approach offers the highest impact "piece of sports signage I've ever seen. It provides a very noticeable impression."
Friedman contended that the approach, introduced at European soccer and basketball games by Adtime's parent, Dorna Sports Promotion Inc., of Madrid, also benefits the sports franchises, which are provided with guaranteed income without having to sell the advertising space.
"Before the season starts, they've got the sale made," said Friedman. "It helps them in revenue planning."
"We always had our sales made before the season anyway," said Steve Schanwald, vice president of marketing and broadcasting for the Bulls. "What it's meant to us is two things: One, a pretty good increase in revenues, and two, it gives the advertiser an uncluttered message."
The local TV stations and cable networks broadcasting the games derive no revenue from Adtime's panels, which conceivably could be an issue down the road if advertisers decide they can get more exposure cheaper in a telecast than in a commercial timeout. But Schanwald dismissed that as a potential problem.
"There's always been scorer's table advertising," he said.