By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/19/2003
hen the US Olympic Committee's food fight was at its worst this winter, David D'Alessandro was just a couple of days away from removing the tarnished domestic rings from everywhere his sponsoring financial services company had them.
"It was during the Senate hearings with [USOC president] Marty Mankamyer and [CEO] Lloyd Ward," said John Hancock's chairman and chief executive. "When that farce was playing itself across America's newspapers and television stations, that was true embarrassment."
For $55 million, Hancock could have sponsored its own five-ringed circus, complete with dancing elephants.
It wasn't until subcommittee chairman John McCain created an independent review commission that D'Alessandro, who'd already been through the Salt Lake bidding scandal, said he decided to stay on board -- at least until he sees what a reformed Olympic committee looks like. "They seem to have gotten it," he said. "But I'm going to wait and see."
Amid the worst economy since the Depression, with attendance wavering and TV ratings dropping and spectator tastes shifting, companies like Hancock are struggling to find a safe and productive place to put their sports sponsorship dollars.
"It's harder because there's a ticking sound under a lot of these sports," said D'Alessandro. "At some point, the public are going to turn their backs.
"You begin to examine what you're getting for your money because there are so many choices now for how people will spend their time."
For Hancock, the sponsorship choices have been whittled to three -- the Olympics, Major League Baseball, and the Boston Marathon. "Those are our mainstays," D'Alessandro said. The rest of the most likely options -- the NFL, NBA, tennis, golf, and auto racing -- D'Alessandro counts out one by one.
NFL -- "It's called America's Game, but you're talking about eight home games on Sunday afternoons and it's the same in every city. Eight home games as opposed to 80 in baseball? We'll take 80."
NBA -- "It's a declining sport. Not that certain teams like the Celtics won't do well, but a lot of second-market teams will have problems and are already beginning to."
Tennis -- "It's waning. You don't have the depth of stars you used to with the likes of [Jimmy] Connors and [John] McEnroe. You have the Williams sisters, but if you've seen Williams play Williams once, you've seen them play 100 times."
Golf -- "It's white guys in Perry Como sweaters. It's great that Tiger Woods is a person of color, but what happens to a tournament if he's not playing or not in the chase? It's a problem having your ratings going up or down depending on how your one icon is playing."
NASCAR -- "It's a growing sport, but I think it's a flash in the pan. It's a pure consumer product. It has 1,000 sponsorship symbols, so there's no distinction. The fatter your driver is, the more symbols he can have on his jumpsuit."
What Hancock wants are sports with both TV exposure and grass-roots marketing potential. "Those are the only things that interest me," D'Alessandro said.
And the Boston Marathon interests him mostly because it happens to finish a laurel wreath's throw away from Hancock's front door in Copley Square. "If this thing was happening in Denver," he mused, "it would not have the same appeal for us."
What still appeals, despite persistent labor problems and recent "supplementary" issues, is baseball. "It has a nice long season," D'Alessandro noted, "and 70 million people went to ballgames last year."
D'Alessandro likes the national pastime enough that he recently bought in as a Red Sox limited partner, although he plans to keep a low profile. "I'm a very minor, very silent partner," said D'Alessandro, who said he was impressed by the management team of John W. Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino. "I'll never stick my oar in the business of the team. They're professional people."
The USOC, which D'Alessandro said has been run by amateurs, was another matter. The committee's recent proposal to shrink its 123-member board to nine, abolish its officers and executive panel, and give day-to-day power to the CEO, was commendable, he said, even if it took a congressional ultimatum to create unanimity. "If you're at a turkey shoot and you don't have a gun," D'Alessandro observed, "you don't stick your head up."
This story ran on page E9 of the Boston Globe on 4/19/2003.