Ad man a winner for sports teams

Account with Ravens, others in NFL give agency high profile

September 19, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

It was during the third quarter of a football game in 1983 that Bob Leffler decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

He had just seen the Baltimore Colts defense run Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway out of that steamy September game. But Leffler had also seen an amazing unity among the Baltimore fans, still seething from Elway's earlier proclamation that he would not come play here -- a move that local fans interpreted as a slam against the city.

"It was a galvanizing day," recalled Leffler, founder and president of the Leffler Agency Inc., a Baltimore-based advertising and public relations/marketing agency. "I knew this was the most exciting thing I'd ever been involved with, other than seeing my daughter born. Everyone was turned on and happy to be living here. It's one of the few times the community gets to touch."

Although Leffler had done sports marketing as a free-lancer since the '70s, the game was his debut as marketing director for the Colts, complete with the sky jumper carrying a football that he orchestrated to wow the crowds.

Leffler was smitten.

"I said to myself, `I want to do this sports advertising thing,' " Leffler said.

His decision has led him into a sports niche in the advertising world where he has snagged ad accounts for four NFL clients -- the Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals and, yes, the Denver Broncos. Recently, his company landed a $3.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, his first foray into major league baseball.

Leffler also does advertising for Baltimore-Washington Ticketmaster and the Maryland Jockey Club, and he recently won the Naval Academy account, where he will do advertising and work on sponsorships and broadcasts for home games.

"He works in the inner sanctum of the National Football League, the most powerful sports league in history," said Stan "The Fan" Charles, radio talk show host for JFK-AM 1300. "He's plugged in."

John A. Moag Jr., managing director of the sports industry group for Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc., said he doesn't think anyone in advertising understands the sports industry better than Leffler.

"Bob has filled a niche that I don't think anyone else in the country has been able to fill," Moag said. "He is in the business of helping a franchise sell its tickets. They want and Bob delivers knowledge about how to deliver a sports product."

But a true test of Leffler's talents will come when he tries to turn around ticket sales for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Moag said.

"It's not hard to sell the Ravens, because it's football coming back after being away," Moag said. "But it's a real hard thing to do in a place like Cincinnati."

Back in 1996-1997, Leffler had about four months to obtain $20 million by selling 38,000 seat licenses for the Cincinnati Bengals in order to ensure that their new stadium would be built. Using a campaign with the theme "Own Your Piece of the Jungle," Leffler topped the goal by $5 million within six weeks.

In Baltimore, when what is now PSI Net Stadium opened, Leffler was charged with coming up with a media strategy to sell Ravens season tickets. He reports that 54,000 were sold in 16 days.

`Mr. Spacely' a competitor

When people talk about Leffler, 53, they describe a fun-loving man with a passion for sports and for talking, a tenacious salesman and bulldog of a competitor, whose annual parties are considered to be among Baltimore's premier social events of the holidays.

Leffler, 53, is a colorful character, a bit of a hypochondriac, his friends say. A few affectionately call him Mr. Spacely, noting what they say is his resemblance to George Jetson's boss, Cosmo G. Spacely, on the futuristic cartoon "The Jetsons."

The ad man's style is to talk in a shorthand language.

"He assumes you know exactly who he's talking about, that his world is your world," Charles said. "That's frustrating, but it's very endearing. The overall impact is that you're part of the same fraternity."

Leffler has a master's in urban popular culture history from Morgan State University, where he wrote a thesis on the history of black baseball in Baltimore between 1913 and 1951. The work is frequently quoted as authoritative. He taught school during the 1970s, working as a social studies department head in the Baltimore schools, before turning to marketing. That training has served him well in the ad business, he said.

"People's behavior based on demographic segments is very repetitive," Leffler said. "What you appeal to in sports is their sense of optimism and community."

An excellent businessman

Leffler has earned the trust of the managers and owners of national sports teams, said Kevin Byrne, vice president of public relations and marketing for the Ravens.

"That trust develops because he has an innocence about him coupled with some real enthusiasm for sports," Byrne said.

Friend and colleague Gary Jordan, president of Azzam Jordan Inc., said Leffler targeted sports as his clientele and then went after clients with a vengeance.

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