- BARCELONA -- Forget about the gold medal. There is actually a loftier reason why the National Basketball Association all-star team has come to the Olympics to beat up on teams from the rest of the world: bubblegum sales in Poland.
- "Think of the possibilities," says Francisco Roca, the point guard for the NBA's marketing efforts in Europe. "The economy in Poland is in very bad shape. But the interest in things American is huge. Now, we come out with something that is American and affordable, like bubblegum. Kids in Poland watch our stars in the Olympics and they want something from the NBA. Maybe they can't afford an NBA shirt, it's too expensive. But bubblegum, they can afford that every once in awhile. Sure they can!"
- Mr. Roca slam dunks that idea into his NBA briefcase and jump shoots a few more: How about NBA cologne in Cologne; NBA jerseys on the Jersey Islands; NBA taffy in Turkey?
- "The potential," he says, with eyes lighting up like a scoreboard, "is huge."
- Thus, while Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson take care of the gold medal, Mr. Roca is going for the gold, period.
- "The basketball finals will be the most-televised event at the Olympics, maybe even ever," he says, elevating the hyperbole surrounding the Dream Team, otherwise known as Team USA. "The world will have a chance to see our big players -- (Michael) Jordan, Magic (Johnson), Clyde (Drexler) -- all together. They will show to the world the true value of basketball, that it is great entertainment. The excitement for the game will grow."
- And so, too, will demand for NBA merchandise. The league's licensees, anxious to cash in on the expected Olympic boom, have boosted their shipments to European retailers, who offer everything from NBA jerseys and caps to NBA chocolate bars and powdered milk to NBA money belts and aftershave lotion (for those who like the locker room smell). In the year ended June 30, the NBA racked up $70 million in European retail sales. Total world-wide sales outside the U.S. were $125 million. This year the NBA is planning to top $100 million on the Continent.
- That is small change compared with the NBA's $1.4 billion retail sales in the U.S. last year. But league officials believe they are on their way to turning basketball, and particularly the NBA, into a global entertainment industry, like Disney, and making the sport as internationally indigenous as other American inventions, like, say . . .
- "Like Donald Duck," says Mr. Roca, who was born in Barcelona.
- While the logos of NBA teams already adorn school lunch boxes and book bags in several corners of Europe, the Chicago bull and the Charlotte hornet aren't yet as famous as Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. But the NBA -- now televised at least once a week during the season in almost every European nation and in some 90 countries around the world -- is beginning to elbow aside soccer in the Continent's sporting consciousness:
- -- A newspaper in Zagreb, Croatia, breaks the startling news that Magic Johnson, who retired from the Los Angeles Lakers (but not the Olympic team) after testing positive for HIV, would be signing a contract with a local team later in the day. At the appointed hour, hundreds of readers and a contingent of rival journalists put their country's civil war on hold and rush to the appointed place to get a picture of Magic. Breathlessly, the newspaper's editors make an announcement: April Fool!
- -- A woman at the Swiss Air check-in counter at Zurich airport asks an American traveler if he knows Spud Webb, the diminutive guard of the Sacramento Kings. She says she became an eternal Spud fan a few years ago while working in the U.S. as an au pair.
- -- Franz Vranitzky, Los Angeles Lakers fan and chancellor of Austria, ends a discourse on the European Economic Community and eagerly takes a bounce pass on a topic just as close to his heart. "It is interesting," he tells an interviewer, "that (the Lakers') former coach seems to be quite successful with the New York Knickerbockers." The chancellor learned basketball as a boy from American soldiers occupying Austria after World War II. He grew up to become a member of the Austrian national team, but never lost his awe for basketball American style. "The NBA," he says reverently, "can be compared with Mount Olympus or Mecca."
- From this lofty pedestal, the 34-year-old Mr. Roca peddles the NBA in Europe. He is an unusual pitchman: He grew up in Spain playing soccer. He stands a mere one meter, 70 centimeters and was never much good at basketball. He used to work at a bank.
- Still, he represents the global future of the NBA. His office, the NBA's office in Europe, is a room in his Barcelona apartment. He flies around the Continent toting basketballs, backboards and cardboard cutouts of players. He wears an NBA pin on his lapel and an NBA watch on his wrist. He speaks about the NBA stars as "our players."
- "Europeans know a few teams: the Bulls, Lakers, Boston Celtics. And they know a few players: Jordon, Magic, (Larry) Bird," Mr. Roca says. "Now with NBA players in the Olympics, we will put faces to those not-so-well-known names of other wonderful players. It will be good for our players to get known throughout the world."
- And it will be good for NBA marketing. Much of the league's merchandise is tied to individual teams and stars of those teams. At a Karstadt department store in Berlin, an NBA exhibit has been carved out of the sporting goods section to draw attention to an Olympic-time promotion. There is a cardboard poster of the Dream Team's Karl Malone. There is a T-shirt of the Charlotte Hornets (complete with information about their stadium and the address of the front office). There are Bulls and Lakers money belts. There are jerseys of the Dream Team players, sporting the words, in English, "The most powerful baskeball team ever features a history-making gathering of the most world famous athletes ever assembled."
- Who can resist? "The more the team is on TV, the more demand we get," says Karstadt salesman Manfred Kress. "It seems that most people who buy (the jerseys) don't play basketball at all. They just want to identify with the American way of life."
- Mr. Kress says anything with the Chicago Bulls' logo, featuring the face of an ornery bull, is particularly hot in Germany, which is good news for Mr. Roca. He has encountered some difficulty in selling the Bulls in southern Italy, even though Chicago, led by Michael Jordan, just won the NBA championship for the second consecutive year.
- "It's the horns," explains Mr. Roca. "In Italy, especially in the south, when a husband's wife is unfaithful to him, it is said that he is wearing horns. That's the worst thing that can happen to a man."
- It is a troublesome image for the NBA's marketers. But, says Mr. Roca, it is nothing that a gold medal can't change.
Wall Street Journal July 1992
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