Selling Is Still 99% Sweat Paul McMann is pumped about this great idea for a new collegiate basketball league. Now, if he can just get somebody to listen.
By David Whitford

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Sweat is trickling down Paul McMann's cheeks, beading on his chin, dripping on his shirt. Tracy Robinson's office is air-conditioned. But oh, man, today is one of those nasty midsummer days in Chicago. The sidewalk was a griddle, the hallway an oven, and McMann, poor guy, he's wearing a dark wool suit and carting two heavy satchels stuffed with paper (press clippings, bound copies of the business plan) and props (hats, jerseys, mouse pads).

Robinson, arms crossed on her desk, is smiling politely, pretending not to notice that McMann is melting. She's director of product marketing at Amtrak--"probably two levels below where we need to be," McMann had said on the way over. But McMann, 40, used to be in sales. He knows how the process unfolds. Every step taken is a step in the right direction. "If you make 20 phone calls, you get one appointment," he says. "If you do 20 appointments, you're gonna get one of them. There's a ratio to everything. From my perspective, we clearly have a compelling idea. It's just a matter of getting in front of the right people to pitch it."

Maybe you've heard about McMann and his idea. He's the former accounting professor from Babson College who's trying to put together a new league, the Collegiate Professional Basketball League (CPBL), and he's been getting a lot of good press lately from columnists, sportswriters, even the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Most of the reports have focused on what is probably the second-most-intriguing aspect of the CPBL: McMann's plan to recruit top high school seniors, pay them to play basketball, and also pay for their college educations.

It's not hard to see the appeal. Bigtime college basketball generates colossal revenues--$1.7 billion over eight years from CBS alone to televise the post-season tournament. That money pays coaches' salaries, supports college athletic departments, and maintains an expansive NCAA bureaucracy, but does nothing to enrich the players. They get scholarships, of course, but too often that's just a tease. Basketball has the worst graduation rate of any Division I sport--barely four in ten. Most players wind up with shattered hoop dreams and no degree.

Compare that with what the CPBL plans to offer: a $5,000 signing bonus; a $9,000 stipend; rent money; and tuition, room, and board at any college or trade school in the country. Full-time students qualify for an extra $3,000 a year, plus a $10,000 bonus if they graduate in four years.

With daily workouts and required personal appearances, most players will attend college part-time in the city where they play, or postpone it altogether. That's okay. They'll have up to four years beyond mandatory retirement (age 22) to make use of their scholarships. Sounds pretty good: no exploitation, no hypocrisy, and the right incentives. Intriguing, absolutely.

But will it sell? That brings us to the most interesting aspect of the CPBL: its anticipated reliance not on ticket sales or even television rights fees--the twin pillars of most pro sports--but on corporate sponsorships. Sponsorship itself is not new. The NHL's Florida Panthers, after all, skate in a building called the National Car Rental Center (ten years, $25 million). The Baltimore Ravens play football in PSINet Stadium (20 years, $104 million). Nascar has its Winston Cup, its Tide and Dr Pepper racing teams. Still, what McMann is proposing goes much further, into a realm no other team sport in America has dared explore. It may be where they're all headed, though. "This isn't about basketball," McMann likes to say. "It's about building up a marketing base. Sports is just a vehicle you build it around."

Everything and everyone in the CPBL is a potential billboard. Take, for example, the purple jersey McMann removes from his satchel and drapes across Ms. Robinson's desk. It says Lycos on it. Not Lions or Tigers or Bears. Not Chicago or New York. Just Lycos. The Boston team in the CPBL, McMann explains, will be called Team Lycos, named for the Web portal that signed a three-year sponsorship agreement with the CPBL in December. Since then, Acunet, an Internet service provider, has signed up for Chicago; and, which will carry the CPBL live on the Web, has taken Detroit. That leaves Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and two teams in the New York market, any one of which, for around half a million dollars a year in cash and services (free train tickets, say), McMann would be happy to christen Team Amtrak. Nothing is off-limits, not even naming rights to the league itself. For $1 million, it could be the Amtrak CPBL.

Robinson has questions. What are the target demographics? Two groups, says McMann--men ages 18 to 49 who watch sports on television and families looking for affordable entertainment (average ticket price, $7.50). When will the games be played? Fourteen weekends from November to February, says McMann, starting in 2000. Robinson nods approvingly. "That's our slow period," she says. Anybody else signed up? Nike and Adidas will supply shoes, he says. PAX network will televise a game every Saturday (but that's a time-buy agreement, not a rights deal).

As they talk, it becomes increasingly obvious that Robinson has a jones for that purple jersey. "My husband will love it," she says. But McMann won't let her have it. He's holding out for another meeting. Make it happen, he hints, returning the jersey to his satchel, and he'll bring her one with AMTRAK on it.

So ends McMann's third appointment of the day. Four more to go--a typical schedule as McMann races toward a self-imposed mid-fall deadline for nailing down five more team sponsors. He needs equity capital too--for startup costs (he has already spent $350,000 of his own money) and for anticipated revenue shortfalls in the first two years, since the league will own and operate all the teams (itself a radical concept). He has raised $6 million, he says; he needs $18 million more.

McMann isn't the smoothest salesman, but he has a few things going for him--passion, persistence, and above all, a former professor's ability to tap into widespread disgust with the state of bigtime college sports. Education reform is not the point of the CPBL, but it is a powerful selling point.

After a lunch at the East Bank Club with two potential investors, McMann meets with Faith Morris at Burrell Communications Group, a black-owned advertising agency on South Michigan. McMann tells Morris he has a two-year, $7 million marketing budget but no cash. Still, he's looking for an agency that can help the league right now. And he would prefer a black firm. "The quid pro quo is, you work for us on the front end, then you're our agency," says McMann.

Morris is skeptical. "Make no mistake. I think the concept is a great one..."

"So let's find a way to make it happen."

"This is not my ordinary deal," says Morris. She asks for a written proposal.

McMann's last appointment in the city is with two well-tanned investment bankers on LaSalle Street. They're putting together a private equity fund that will invest in minor-league sports franchises. Sure, they like McMann's deal. They just think it's too small. "Not only do I not want to waste your time," one of them tells McMann, "more important, I don't want to waste my time." But he would like a free hat. "Got a blue one?" he asks, peering into McMann's bag.

Rush-hour traffic on the John F. Kennedy is bumper-to-bumper halfway to Northbrook, so when McMann finally rolls into the big, empty parking lot at Allstate, he's 45 minutes late. Cynthia Farrow-Miller, the senior marketing manager, is understanding, though--and plainly interested in McMann's proposal. "I like the idea that it's different and new," she says.

That's what McMann likes to hear. He's still smiling ten minutes later when he leans against a door to get out to the parking lot. But the door won't open.

"Security ID number!"

McMann looks startled. There's nobody around. The voice seems to be coming from a speaker in the ceiling. "Ten-four-three-two-one!" McMann tries.

The voice is not amused. "Go to C dock!" it shouts.

"Where is C dock?" McMann asks, looking up at the speaker.

"East of west!" is the mystifying reply.

McMann puts down his heavy bags. At least it's cool in here.

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