The Globetrotters score Hoop success: Since forming the group that bought the Harlem Globetrotters, Mannie Jackson has doubled the revenues of his former team.

January 05, 1996|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,SUN STAFF

To hear Mannie Jackson tell it, the feature film about the Harlem Globetrotters will be a cross between "Rudy" and "Malcolm X."

"It's going to be a blockbuster," Mr. Jackson said of the Columbia Pictures project, tentatively titled "Showtime," blessed with a $50 million to $75 million budget and due out in 1997.

Mr. Jackson, the Globetrotters' first African-American owner, is intent on providing the Globetrotters' story with a happy ending.

In 1993, Mr. Jackson, 56, formed a partnership that purchased the Globetrotters for $6 million from the bankrupt Minneapolis-based International Broadcasting Co., rescuing the team from declining revenues and attendance and infusing it with new blood, innovative concepts and Mr. Jackson's own corporate vision.

"You can't confuse what you do and what you are," Mr. Jackson said of the Globetrotters, who appeared at the Baltimore Arena last night. "We provide family entertainment as a funny basketball show, but we're actually a marketing company."

A sports marketing company to be exact. Two years ago, Mr. Jackson walked away from his $400,000-a-year job as a senior vice president at the Minneapolis-based Honeywell corporation to focus his marketing efforts on the Globetrotters.

The move raised eyebrows among Mr. Jackson's fellow corporate executives, who tried to be kind about his decision. "They said, 'That's kind of an interesting thing to do,' " Mr. Jackson said.

But to Mr. Jackson, a Globetrotter player from 1962 to 1964, the move made perfect sense. Basketball, he said, helped him escape poverty, go to college and get into the corporate world.

Mr. Jackson was one of the first two African-American basketball players at the University of Illinois. After graduating from college in 1960, he tried out for the New York Knicks, but in those days opportunities for blacks were limited in the NBA.

So Mr. Jackson went to play for the Globetrotters, a team started in 1926 by Abe Saperstein. The Globetrotters were based in Chicago and had nothing to do with Harlem, other than identifying the team with the African-American community in New York City.

Mr. Saperstein, the son of Polish immigrants and a fellow University of Illinois graduate, took a personal interest in Mr. Jackson, introducing him to dignitaries such as Fidel Castro, the pope and Nikita S. Khrushchev, and encouraging him to further his education.

Mr. Jackson received an M.A. in economics and marketing from the University of Detroit in 1968 and embarked on a career in business. He spent 25 years with Honeywell, the world's largest maker of energy control systems.

He was named by one of the "40 most powerful and influential black corporate executives" by Black Enterprise Magazine in 1993, and he helped start the Executive Leadership Council, a national group of Fortune 500 African-American executives.

"Mannie is a man who has learned how to manage his profession, his life and his dreams," Michael R. Bonsignore, Honeywell's chairman and chief executive, told the New York Times in 1994.

An unsuccessful bid in 1989 to purchase a National Basketball Association franchise for San Diego led Mr. Jackson to set his sights on resurrecting the Globetrotters, whose attendance had declined by two-thirds and whose revenues had fallen below $10 million.

He started by replacing longtime crowd favorites such as Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal with younger players. He also replaced the team's most frequent doormat of an opponent, Red Klotz's Washington Generals, with the International All-Stars.

There's a new mascot, Globie, a rock music soundtrack and two Globetrotter teams instead of one. Last month, the team signed Orlando Antigua, the first non-black Globetrotter since the 1942-43 season (it was Bob Karstens), and in September the Globetrotters lost their first game, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's All-Stars, since 1971.

What Mr. Jackson has sacrificed in tradition, he has gained in corporate sponsors, landing a national television commercial with American Express, and a promotional partnership with Northwest Airlines and playing host to basketball clinics and demonstrations sponsored by Apple Computer. Other sponsors include Reebok, Sony and Denny's.

Still some things remain the same about the Globetrotters -- the red, white and blue uniforms, the "Sweet Georgia Brown" theme song, and famous gags, such as the hidden ball trick and the bucket full of confetti. Two of Mr. Jackson's former Globetrotter teammates, Tex Harrison and Geese Ausbie, serve as coaches.

Mr. Jackson said he is about halfway through efforts to improve the Globetrotters, yet, he said, he has already tripled the number of international appearances and doubled revenues.

The corporate sponsors, the movie and a television deal that is still in the works, Mr. Jackson said, will allow the Globetrotters -- who are celebrating their 70th anniversary this season -- to entertain into the next century.

"The Globetrotters will be around in another 70 years," he said.

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