Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who last year dueled the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire in a summer-long race to break the single-season home run record, will soon be pitching for Sparks-based athletic apparel maker Fila USA.
The company announced a two-year deal yesterday with Sosa -- who lost the contest but was named the National League's Most Valuable Player -- in which he will market his own cross-training shoe. Outfielder Sosa hit 66 homers, breaking Roger Maris' record of 61, but came in second to McGwire's 70.
Fila is working on a prototype of the "Sosa Trainer" and plans to have it in stores by spring. Under terms of the incentive-based contract, Sosa will receive a percentage of the shoe's sales instead of a fixed fee.
"On its surface it loses something because they can't use him for a tennis shoe and they have to create this cross-training shoe. It doesn't put a fire under me," said Marty Blackman, head of Blackman and Raber Ltd., a New York firm that matches advertisers with sports figures.
"It doesn't make sense unless they're going after the Latino market, and that's proper marketing, that's smart," Blackman said.
According to a study conducted for the California Milk Processor Board by RL Public Relations & Marketing in Beverly Hills, Latino teen-agers will go from today's 12 percent of the U.S. teen population to 18 percent by 2010.
"I think [Sosa] definitely appeals to young biculturists," said Roxana Lissa, the firm's president.
"He's sort of like the Jennifer Lopez of the entertainment business -- he appeals to both Spanish-language [speakers] and to people born in this country."
Mark Westerman, director of advertising and communications at Fila, said Sosa, a native of the Dominican Republic, has across-the-board appeal.
"It makes a lot of sense for the community at large and for the Latino community," Westerman said. "There's no question he's helpful to the Latino market, but there's also no question that Sammy Sosa is bigger than that. He transcends race, denominations and ethnicity."
Fila was the sixth-largest maker of athletic footwear in 1994 when it signed a multimillion-dollar deal with former Duke University basketball star Grant Hill. In 1997 Fila had risen to the No. 3 spot and paid Hill $80 million to extend his contract through 2004.
Today Fila is fourth-largest, behind Nike, Adidas and Reebok. The company hopes the Sosa deal will give it "credibility with an elite, internationally known athlete and drive our cross-training shoe," Westerman said.
Cross trainers, which are designed to be used in a variety of sports including running and aerobics, now make up about 15 percent to 20 percent of Fila's footwear business.
Fila has seen sales of its basketball shoes drop and says the popularity of outdoor shoes and hiking boots -- such as Doc Martens and Timberlands -- have hurt its revenue. Parent company Fila Holdings SpA of Italy, which lost $132.9 million last year, has turned much of its focus to running shoes as basketball-sneaker sales faltered.
Fila's American depositary receipts, which reached a high of $105 in September 1996, fell 25 cents to $12.3125 yesterday.
"I think it's a terrific idea, I think [Sosa is] a very, very marketable guy," said Peter Kaplan, co-chief executive officer of the National Media Group Inc., a sports marketing firm in New York. "His appeal is wide and deep. His performance on the field is awesome and beyond that he's got a charisma about him that I think appeals to everybody."