Leagues of Their Own Entrepreneurs are behind a new wave of pro sports, closing TV and sponsorship deals, building tours, and making headlines. Who will become the next Vince McMahon?
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Hey, sports fans, remember when you were a kid and you'd make up sports leagues? That professional dart association in your basement could now be a thriving business and not just a childhood fantasy. Entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the current boom in cable and satellite channels to create new leagues because, as sports television consultant Neal Pilson puts it, "These new channels are all looking for stuff to put into the pipe." It's only natural then that Mason Gordon, inventor of SlamBall, first pitched the idea to his boss at the time, Hollywood producer Mike Tollin. Or that Catherine Masters of the National Women's Football Association (opposite at center among members of the Nashville Dream and Chattanooga Locomotion) jumped at the chance to sign a five-year deal with the fledgling Football Network.
All growth opportunities flow from the exposure and legitimacy TV brings. "It's the critical element for the success of the sport," says Long Drivers of America owner Art Sellinger, whose annual championship appears on ESPN. "If we want to get bigger sponsors, they demand multiple thousands of impressions from television, not just the number of fans at an individual event."
Helen Sevier's bass fishing is the model for the rest. She successfully built her fan base through programs on TNN and then was bought out by ESPN for an estimated $35 million in 2001. Masters hopes her TV deal leads to bigger things too. "Down the road the NFL will be interested in us," she says. "They like money, don't they?"
If bass fishing becomes the next NASCAR, thank Helen Sevier. When Sevier joined the Alabama-based Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) in 1970, it had only 10,000 members and six tournaments. She recognized that more members lead to more tournaments, and vice versa. (More than half of all members compete in tournaments.) Sevier sold memberships through direct mail and Bassmaster magazine, and when growth ebbed in 1985 she turned to TV and a deal with cable network TNN. "It was so popular they ended up building an entire block of outdoor programming around it," she says. Today BASS boasts more than 600,000 members and hosts a pro tour and 25,000 amateur competitions. ESPN reeled in BASS from Sevier in 2001. "We've built up a lot of sports like NASCAR but lost money in rights fees as they got popular," says Michael Rooney, senior vice president for ESPN Outdoors. "We saw this as an opportunity to finally own the success." Sevier has no regrets about selling to a big network: "I was really proud of what we did at BASS, but we were still a small company casting a big net."
The U.S. IS the fattest nation in the world. Is it any wonder it's the first to make eating a sport? Brothers George (left) and Richard Shea (right), founders of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, came up with the idea after Nathan's Famous hired their public relations firm in 1991 to promote its Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island. "It appears on TV and radio and in print worldwide," exclaims George, who quickly realized the sponsorship potential. They formed the IFOCE in 1997 and set out on the road developing existing events and creating new ones (like the Thanksgiving Meal contest in New York). The Sheas sign up a primary sponsor, such as New Orleans's Acme Oysters, and scour the countryside for other local sponsors, which pony up $1,500 to $50,000 to get their name in the paper. Of the $1 million the IFOCE gobbled up in 2002, 50% came from those deals. TV specials like last summer's The Glutton Bowl on Fox add another 25% to their bellies and have put the sport into the popular culture, making minor celebrities out of "gurgitators" like Takeru Kobayashi, the 130-pound Japanese man who once downed 502 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Next up: national tours. "A tour will help build more viewer interest, and then we can go after national sponsors," George says. Frank's RedHot Sauce recently recruited the Sheas to build a Wing Circuit, which will wend its way through six cities en route to the championship in Buffalo over Labor Day weekend. Start training now.
For years the province of side bets between buddies, long driving--the art of slamming a golf ball as far as you can--took shape as a sport when Art Sellinger set out to create it in his own brash image. "Showmanship is really important," says the 38-year-old. He added loud, throbbing music and encouraged competitors to create personas like Golfzilla, a.k.a. Jason Zuback, and work the crowd. Although the $5 million sport has expanded its fan base by making them competitors--anyone can enter a local competition leading up to the national championship--the future lies in the two-year-old Pinnacle Long Drivers of America Tour. "We need a ten-to 15-event tour with a major TV contract," he says. The tour's sponsors, Pinnacle, Cobra Golf, and IBC Root Beer, let him pay a $400,000 purse for seven events in 2003, but he wants more. "We're a blue-collar crowd, so I'd like to see Coors Light as a sponsor. Or Hooters." Beer, babes, and balls. Fore!
I wanted to bring a videogame mentality to basketball," says Mason Gordon (above left), the 28-year-old inventor of SlamBall, a high-intensity version of the game that notably adds hockey-like checking and trampolines so every player can dunk like Michael Jordan. As an intern to Hollywood producer Mike Tollin (pictured right) in 1997, Gordon convinced his boss, after a year of pleading, to join him in the venture. Relying on an existing partnership with Warner Bros. Television, Tollin, producer of Arli$$ and Smallville, sold the idea to Telepictures Productions (owned by the parent of FSB's publisher). The duo creatively structured the deal like a TV show so that Telepictures eats all the costs, and if the sport becomes profitable, the money will be shared between them. First-season ratings on TNN were impressive--about 500,000 viewers on Saturday nights--and reruns attracted even larger audiences, prompting TNN to re-up for a second season. Gordon never doubted it would succeed. Why? "Because I'm a cocky bastard!" Perfect for hoops and Hollywood.