Superstar salesmen spinning their Web

January 27, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Another day, another Super Bowl sales pitch, another high-powered Internet merger.

Quick, name the reason that John Elway, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky came together yesterday for perhaps the most star-studded news conference in sports history.

Hint: It wasn't to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Then again, their goal was no more transparent than Coca-Cola's back in the prehistoric days when TV commercials were the preferred way to reach consumers.

The Three Entrepreneurs, portraying themselves as the Three Musketeers, want you to visit their Web site -- the appropriately monikered mvp.com.

They then want you to purchase outdoor and sporting goods merchandise with the same passion they once brought to their respective sports.

"What a difference a year makes, huh?" Elway asked.

To put it mildly.

A year ago, Elway was preparing to win his second straight Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos, then retire. Jordan had announced his retirement from the Chicago Bulls. Gretzky had not yet retired from the New York Rangers.

Now, faster than you can say AOL-Time Warner, they've made seamless transitions to their post-playing careers, seeking to grab your wallets as effectively as they grabbed your hearts.

Not that this is particularly new for any of them.

Jordan is the greatest salesman in sports history. Elway owns car dealerships with annual sales of more than $300 million. Gretzky lags on the business end, but as a hockey player, his opportunities have been more limited.

The interesting thing about this collective new venture is that it again demonstrates not just the allure of Internet start-ups but also the investment power of retired sports heroes.

Elway, Jordan and Gretzky aren't disappearing from public view; they're simply moving into new arenas. As Elway put it: "We want to compete in business as much as we want to compete on the field."

Look out, America.

The former MVPs are your future CEOs, alpha males with money to burn and a burning desire to vanquish competitors in the $1,000 suits that serve as their new uniforms.

Mvp.com is nothing more than a blatant attempt by the Three Entrepreneurs to grab their share of the $150 billion sporting-goods market, with a little help from various business cohorts and on-line partners.

Elway crowed that yesterday's event served as his "threepeat." Jordan, meanwhile, further inspired the nation to "Be Like Mike," wangling a day off one week into his new job as the Wizards' president of basketball operations.

Yesterday's slick production was broadcast live on the Web, and Internet users were permitted to ask questions along with reporters. Mvp.com officials, however, all but censored any questions that strayed from their breathless launch.

Of course, in today's merger-crazed environment, the lines are blurred beyond recognition. A reporter asked Jordan if he had spoken with Mark Cuban, the founder of broadcast.com and new owner of the Dallas Mavericks, about Dennis Rodman.

"I wish him the best if he does choose to hire Dennis," Jordan said, speaking as both a rival owner and a former teammate of Rodman's. "He'll have his hands full."

A huge cake was rolled out in celebration of Gretzky's 39th birthday -- "Thanks for coming to my party," the Great One said, sheepishly. Naturally, the cake was then fed to reporters.

What exactly will Jordan, Gretzky and Elway do for their new company? Well, they're all "meaningful equity holders," according to CEO John Costello, a former Sears executive. And they all offer what mvp.com trumpets as "insight."

In other words, you can go to MVP.com to learn what Elway desired in helmets, or what Gretzky desired in shoulder pads. The "Elite Advisory Board" doesn't endorse products, mind you. In fact, some consumers might take perverse pleasure in buying Converse on Jordan's web site.

"You bring together the best of the best to pass on information that we have utilized to perfect our sport," Jordan said. "I take pride in doing that. That's my way of passing my knowledge on to the next great athlete. I think it's very helpful."

Gosh, MJ, what can anyone say but thanks?

Seriously, the Orioles' Cal Ripken seems a natural to join the company's board of advisors, especially with mvp.com lacking a baseball presence. The equipment suggestions that Ripken could offer would merely be an extension of the instruction he already provides at his fantasy camps.

Hold my referral fee, Cal.

I'll take stock options.

Actually, no one has any idea whether mvp.com or any other dot-com will succeed long-term. A reporter asked why a consumer would want to buy sporting goods on-line when the choice often depends on fit and feel? Costello replied that mvp.com would offer greater convenience and assortment, as if shopping from store to store were the equivalent of working on a chain gang.

The Three Entrepreneurs just sat there, smooth as ever. Jordan nodded thoughtfully as Gretzky talked about his children researching homework assignments on the Internet. Elway said he fell so deeply in love with his computer, his wife nicknamed it, "Connie."

"We were all looking to get into business," Elway gushed. "It just kind of worked out that we all retired the same year."

How did America get so lucky?

Another day, another Super Bowl sales pitch, another high-powered Internet merger.

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