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  Hancock's signature brand to remain a driving force in sports scene

By Christopher Rowland, Globe Staff, 9/29/2003

The familiar script will light up the night above Fenway Park's centerfield scoreboard during the upcoming American League playoffs. It has become permanently entwined with another instantly recognized logo worldwide, the Olympic rings. And locally, it will forever be linked with a Boston institution it helped rescue from almost certain oblivion, the Boston Marathon.

John Hancock Financial Services Inc. has made sports sponsorship a signature cause, spending tens of millions of dollars to associate its name with big-time sports.

It has also taken its responsibility seriously, becoming a driving force to change the way the national and international Olympic committees conduct business. And with Hancock's announced merger with Toronto-based Manulife Financial Corp., Hancock's efforts in sports-related marketing will continue, company spokeman Stephen Burgay said yesterday.

Hancock has a $55 million deal with the Olympics through 2008 and a Major League Baseball contract through 2009 worth an undisclosed amount. Hancock is the primary sponsor of the Boston Marathon, offering a prize purse that has helped attract the best runners in the world. It is committed to holding that prime sponsorship position through 2018, Burgay said.

"It's a marketing tool that has worked really well for us, and we hope it will continue to work well for us in the future," he said. Burgay said he could not speculate on whether those contracts would be renewed once they expire.

Boston baseball fans may be most familiar with the sign at Fenway, but Hancock has been carefully working to broaden its use of sports under the leadership of chairman and CEO David D'Alessandro.

"They've really sought to become a national and international brand," said Larry Moulter, a Boston sports-marketing specialist. "The fact that they are with the Red Sox is good local color for them, but this is really an international company that has built part of its personality on the back of the Olympics and Major League Baseball."

Hancock is in the "upper echelon" of corporate sponsors nationwide, not just for its spending, but for its entertaining at sports events, advertising support, and marketing tie-ins, said Dean Bonham, CEO of the Bonham Group, a Denver-based sports marketing firm.

"They've been one of the most visible sponsors in the last few years," he said. "It'll be interesting to see if they maintain that presence in the sponsorship world now that they have merged with a Canadian company."

Near and dear to local hearts was Hancock's boost to the Boston Marathon in the mid-1980s. After the race suffered several years of declining participation and prestige, Hancock stepped in and helped the Boston Athletic Association offer cash prizes to maintain its standing as a world-class race. This year's first-place prize was $80,000.

Meawnhile, D'Alessandro has turned his back on golf, tennis, and other sports that traditionally have drawn attention from financial services and insurance companies.

Instead, he has said that he believes baseball, with its long season and huge fan base, is a better way to raise the company's profile.

More striking, though, has been D'Alessandro's willingness to use Hancock's sponsorship of the Olympics as a public platform to demand changes after corruption scandals swept the International Olympic Committee in 1999 and the US Olympic Committee in 2002.

He has attracted headlines around the country with his blunt criticism. In January 2003, he told the Globe that the USOC's "endless missteps" were "damaging the Olympic brand, and, by association, our own image, and diluting the return on our Olympic investment." He threatened to withdraw his company's sponsorship under provisions of a "morals clause."

Hancock was alone in its criticism. Other sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Xerox, Eastman Kodak, AT&T, and Visa, kept their concerns to themselves.

"David D'Alessandro is perhaps the most vocal of sponsor CEOs across the country," said Bonham. "It's fair to say that his comments raised the level of awareness in the sponsorship community of the level of issues that were a concern in the Olympics."

While it remains to be seen whether D'Alessandro remains outspoken, Hancock spokesman Burgay made it seem likely.

"I think David's viewpoint has always been that he will do whatever it takes to make sure the underlying value of the brand remains intact," he said, "and I expect that will continue."

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.

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