Leffler turns hate to love

The Baltimore marketing man who helped hatch the Ravens is boosting college football, dealing with British xenophobia.

December 07, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

Bob Leffler started his career in marketing working for the most hated man in Baltimore.

Today, more than 20 years later, he has moved on to working for the most hated man in England.

As Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer continues his quest to gain controlling interest in the most well-known soccer team in the world - England's Manchester United - he has again called on Leffler's marketing firm in Baltimore to run interference.

"They know me, they know what I can do," Leffler said of the 12-year relationship that began with Glazer's attempt to obtain an NFL expansion team for Baltimore.

The relationship has gone so well that Leffler was made a board member of Zapata Corp., Glazer's holding company, in 1995. And after the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2003, Leffler received a ring.

Glazer has accumulated more than 28 percent of Manchester United's stock, but his attempt to gain controlling interest stalled last month when his financial backer, J.P. Morgan, resigned after Glazer ignored the investment bank's advice and voted against retaining three members of the team's board of directors. Fans in England are upset with the notion of an American owning Manchester United.

"The only reason they hate [Glazer] - if they hate him - is xenophobia and fear of the unknown, it's not logic," Leffler said. "Our job is to change that. To show that this is a true sportsman who will run your franchise like it should be run and win you championships."

If Glazer decides to continue the effort to buy Manchester United, Leffler said that he will conduct a "positive, get-to-know-you campaign" for the owner.

Leffler, a former high school teacher, started in the marketing business full-time in January 1983, when he was hired to work in the ticket offices of Robert Irsay's Baltimore Colts.

"He pretty much was one of the pioneers in our league of developing that [the marketing end] into what it is today," said the man who hired Leffler, Ernie Accorsi, who was then the Colts general manager.

"He was one of the early marketing people," said Accorsi, now general manager of the New York Giants. "I don't know how many people there were in the league in '83, but there weren't many."

Today, the Leffler Agency, which he started in early 1984 after resigning as the Colts' marketing director, has 16 sports-related accounts. The list includes the Orioles; the Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp.; and the NFL's Ravens, Buccaneers, Bengals and Broncos. He has a number of nonsports clients as well, ranging from WMAR-TV to City Council President Sheila Dixon.

And on the strength of a program to put fans in the stands at college sporting events, the Leffler Agency has signed up seven universities across the country - from the Naval Academy to Fresno State.

"The college stuff is making us national," said Leffler, 59, at his second-floor office in the 2600 block of N. Charles St.

Leffler's college portfolio really took off after he was hired by the University of Connecticut in 2002 to help with the Huskies' move to Division I-A football.

UConn, perennially a power in men's and women's basketball, was going from a 16,000-seat on-campus football facility in Storrs to a 40,000-seat stadium in East Hartford.

"It needed a professional who knew the business of sports marketing and advertising to help get the word out," said Neal Eskin, executive associate director of athletics at UConn.

This season, UConn sold out five of its six home games, falling short only in its opener against Murray State.

Eskin said Leffler helped develop both ticket and advertising plans.

"He helped identify a theme called `New dog in the show,' which represented a new product in the marketplace," Eskin said. "Just like any advertising, making people aware ... and trying to excite people about what this product is. ... That the culture of tailgating and coming out and making football games an event was a great thing."

Said Leffler: "Something happened with the UConn thing that just changed the perception of the agency. We made a market out of nothing."

Some of Leffler's local work is exemplified by the U.S. Naval Academy's billboards or radio ads asking fans to "Spend Saturdays with Bill."

The academy has been a Leffler client since 1998, said Eric Ruden, senior associate athletic director. Ruden said it was Leffler and associate athletic director Boo Corrigan who suggested that the academy push into the Baltimore market in an attempt to become the city's college football team.

"We are selling Navy in a way we never have, at least in my tenure here," said Ruden, who has been at Annapolis since 1996. "We're going after that family - with the [billy goat] mascot Bill, with the catchy jingle. In the past we have kind of trumpeted the football side and marketed directly to the football fan or it's been more the military hook with the pomp and pageantry, tailgating, flyovers, march-on, which are still part of Navy football."

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