Thursday, November 8, 2012

Franco. American.

Because professionally I’m a marketing guy, I think marketing thoughts from time to time. Like today, after writing some print ads[1], I started thinking about spokesmen[2]. When was the last time you bought anything because a spokesanything asked you to? Did you buy OxiClean because of Billy Mays or in spite of him? Does the endless splicing of Subway B-roll featuring Blake Griffin, Apolo Ohno, Justin Tuck et al. give you the hankering for a Spicy Italian, or does it make you think, “This is cheesier than a Meatball Marinara”? What’s that you say? Victor Cruz gives you the urge to buy Chunky Soup? Really? Who’s next on the list of shark-jumping NFLers to queue up for Campbell’s? Jabar Gaffney?

I ask because in the course of cleaning out our storage room over the weekend I remembered the rush to spokesmen that took place once Upper Deck hit the card market in 1989. Prior to that there were no trading-card spokesmen. Topps was fine standing on proverbial streetcorners and yelling, “Hey kids! Get a free baseball coin in every pack!” Fleer was full-speed ahead with its innovative distribution system involving horse-drawn wagons and out-of-work icemen. And Donruss – at that time part of General Mills – was just trying to stay out of Cheerios’ way.

Upper Deck was all about spokespeople at athlete involvement from the getgo. One of its founding partners was superstar Angels pitcher DuWayne Buice. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the contract Reggie Jackson was UD’s first celebrity shill. Then it was Ken Griffey Jr., and the spokesman thing was full-on.

Magic Johnson became the NBA Hoops guy. Wayne Gretzky did the dirty for UD Hockey. Michael Jordan took the cash for Upper Deck Basketball. Joe Montana became the advocate of choice of every would-be Upper Deck with a solvent checkbook. We had receptions with David Robinson, walkabouts with Brett Favre, Q-and-As with Health Shuler and Rick Mirer, meet-and-greets with Shawn Respert, and even a tennis match with Franco Harris, which brings me to this little corner of heaven.

Ever since its Westport, Conn., days Pinnacle had a thing for Franco Harris. I’m not precisely sure why, though this smaller voice in the back of my head says in a grating East Coast accent that Pinnacle’s boss at the time, Dan Shedrick, had some mystic connection with Harris that reached back as far as the brawling hills of western Pennsylvania.

When Pinnacle got a football license, its first spokesman was Franco Harris. Bart Oates was his backup, and that same yawping voice in the back of my head says it was because Oates and Shedrick were neighbors. Gee, what if Shedrick had lived next door to Neal Guggemos? The world might be a different place.

Harris was the front man for Pinnacle football and I was a card journalist in lush Iola, Wis., so when the Super Bowl and its attendant Pekingese-and-Percheron show came to the Metrodome in 1991, Shedrick invited myself and my tennis-playing colleague, Don Butler, to meet them in Minneapolis for a doubles match.

You need to know that Don Butler is about five-foot-four and an absolutely insidious tennis player. He’s the sort of opponent you hate because he takes all your powerhouse drives and 100-mph smashes and turns them into lollipop cuts or well-angled side-spinners that force you to start the process over again, and then he makes you repeat that until you skull one or collapse from exhaustion. With me the skulling always comes first.

So it was the loose cannon and the sniper versus Shedrick and Harris, in a sort of mini-Metrodome tennis court at an athletic club somewhere in downtown Minneapolis. Shedrick played country-club doubles sans the white cable-knit sweater around his neck, and Harris played the ball like it was Charles Romes, meaning he saw it coming and promptly angled for the sidelines. He also had a surprisingly meek serve for such a big guy, a little cutter that was no trouble to return.

In fact, the more we played against Shedrick and Harris the more disappointing it became. Here was a genuine legend who for so many years on so many NFL fields had run out of bounds at the first hint of contact, playing junior-high-school tennis alongside the third runner-up, D Flight, in the Westport Country Club’s Spring Tennis Fling.

And we stunk, too. It was about the worst match Don and I ever played together, so the scores were – we’ll call them even. Both sides demanded a rematch but it never happened.

Harris soldiered on as the face of Pinnacle football for several more years, and when Pinnacle landed an NHL license, he was joined by two of the sport’s youngest guns – first Eric Lindros, he of the cleft chin, unrealistic expectations and recurring head injuries[3], and then Alexandre Daigle, of the 129 career goals and toothpick-diametered extremities. That unusual and unholy trinity were commemorated on this exhibit-sized Pinnacle Power card given away – in its own velvet-lined pouch, no less – by Pinnacle to showcase its holofoilish technology and celebrate one thing or another.

The fact that this piece is serially numbered is comforting. It’s reassuring to know there are at most 200 other cards like this in the universe, presuming none of them have swapped DNA or had their gene patterns replicated.

Spokesmen still swarm over the card business, sorry to say. Panini prominently features Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Kobe Bryant on its website; Topps bandies about Yu Darvish, trying to land that multicultural vote; and Upper Deck has its usual stable of big names. There’s still no proof that any of them by themselves, exclusive of autographs and special subsets, have sold a single extra card, but that’s marketing for you. Never simply sell the product when you can spend lots more money to oversell it to no one in particular.

Maybe it’s time to dust off the wagons and thaw the icemen. Whaddya say, guys?

[1] My forge not being sufficiently hot to hammer out some greaves and cuirasses.
[2] The shortened version of “spokesmen, spokeswomen, spokescats, spokesdoughballs, and spokesovenmitts.”
[3] Which are definitely no laughing matter.

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