SPORTS

THE SHILL OF VICTORY

Why did Wayne Gretzky’s sponsors rush to his side? Because they work for him.

CHARLIE GILLIS February 27 2006
SPORTS

THE SHILL OF VICTORY

Why did Wayne Gretzky’s sponsors rush to his side? Because they work for him.

CHARLIE GILLIS February 27 2006

THE SHILL OF VICTORY

Why did Wayne Gretzky’s sponsors rush to his side? Because they work for him.

SPORTS

BY CHARLIE GILLIS • Michael Budman is not trying to capitalize—honest he’s not. But as a long-time hockey fan, a purveyor of maple-leaf embossed clothing and keeper of an ever-expanding network of celebrity pals, the co-founder of Roots Canada Ltd. could not have been happier to launch a signature line with Wayne Gretzky last week, what with the eyes of the world squarely on the Great One. “The timing is good,” Budman enthused on the phone from Turin, where Gretzky had arrived wearing an earlier vintage Roots jacket. “This should, and will, be a great moment for Wayne. It’s important for us to stand behind him.” To say Budman has met a lot of

famous people would be an understatement. His stores were once festooned with grip-andgrin photos of himself with the luminaries of music, screen and sport. “But there’s something about Wayne that’s above and beyond,” he said. “I really believe in the guy.”

He’s not the only one. Even as Gretzky ducked questions about the gambling scandal that has tarred his friends and threatened his own good name, one corporate patron after another was rushing to the hockey legend’s defence with professions of undying faith in his integrity. Pepsi and McDonald’s both sent forth officials to state their support on the same day reports circulated suggesting Gretzky learned of the sports betting ring long before he denied knowledge of it. Gina Gehlert, a spokeswoman for the Ford Motor Company of Canada, said the automaker’s fouryear relationship with Gretzky would continue, saying he remains an emblem of traits like honesty, family and dedication to one’s community. “He not only espouses those values,” she said, “he lives them.”

It was stunning proof, if more was needed, of Gretzky’s special status in the realm of celebrity endorsement. Seven years after his NHL retirement, the 45-year-old remains the country’s greatest pitchman, commanding a reported $1 million to back a product and enjoying his pick of blue chip benefactors. While early reports of the gambling scandal focused on the danger to the Great One’s en-

dorsement portfolio, retail analysts now say the greater threat may be to any company who has the nerve to pull the plug. “I think that could produce a powerful adverse reaction,” said Gordon Kirke, a Toronto-based sports lawyer who advises NHL clients on marketing and endorsement matters. “Wayne’s been very careful in how he’s dealt with the public and the media over the years. I think

he’s bought himself a lot of good faith.”

Roots’ deal ivas not just opportunism, it was sweet revenge

And faith is the foundation on which endorsements are built. Ask any marketer who’s taken a flier on a talented but irresponsible athlete, then lived in fear of that fateful chime of the BlackBerry announcing his arrest. One day, your pitchman is signing kids’ trainers through the window of his Porsche. The next, he’s skulking into his drunk-driving arraignment while CNN goes live from the scene. But signing a star with a record of staying out of trouble only makes the damage greater if his demons do take hold. In an odd way, it’s safer to bank on the bad-boy cool of a troubled figure, like the NBA’s Allen Iverson. Then, at least, expectations will be low.

So why didn’t Gretzky’s squeaky clean image suffer in the past two weeks? Why hasn’t the gambling scandal sent his corporate bene-

factors scurrying for cover? One answer lies in recent developments in the case. It was never suggested Gretzky laid bets with the illegal gambling ring allegedly run by his assistant coach Rick Tocchet, as his wife Janet is reported to have done. And lawyers for both Wayne and Janet say they’ve been assured their clients won’t be criminally prosecuted. That’s hardly a full exoneration, and details continue to bubble out suggesting Gretzky is not the gambling neophyte he’s claimed (one report out of Las Vegas last week alleges he and Janet have lost US$2 million in local casinos). But it’s not the kind of stuff that sends panic through the executive suite, notes Norman O’Reilly, a professor of marketing at Toronto’s Ryerson University who

specializes in sports sponsorships and endorsements. “If it comes out six weeks from now that Wayne was directly involved or was betting on his own games or something,” says O’Reilly, “then he’d be hurt, and so would the companies who use him.”

And the companies have a huge stake in actively protecting the Gretzky legend. No other Canadian garners as much recognition and appreciation as the Great One, so the destruction of his reputation would mark the loss of a significant promotional asset. Factor in the coincidence of the scandal and the Olympics, say analysts, and you can see why companies are speaking out on his behalf. “We’re talking about the pinnacle of their associations with Gretzky and his brand,” explains Brad Robins, a sports marketing consultant who advises Rick Nash, among other NHL players. “It could only hurt their business to back off at this time.”

In Budman’s case, the calculation appears to be that hopping on the Gretzky band-

wagon now will only help Roots’ cause. It also offers sweet revenge. Just over a year ago, the clothing maker lost its coveted status as official outfitter of the Canadian Olympic team to rival Hudson’s Bay Company in a bitterly contested competition. Now, with hockey assuming the limelight at the Winter Games, and HBC winding down a previous agreement with Gretzky to sell its own signature line of clothing, Roots is generously supplying both the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams with the Gretzkyedition jackets while they’re in Turin.

Gretzky is one figure the COC—and his benefactors—can’t afford to offend

The move prompted a warning from the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which signed the deal with HBC to outfit Canadian teams for the next four sets of games. “There are rules from the IOC around the promotion of competing brands at the Olympics,” said spokeswoman Renee Smith Valade, noting that HBC was paying a generous portion of proceeds from the clothing to support Olympic athletes. The organization sent a letter to Roots last week requesting more information, she added. “We want to do everything we can to protect what HBC have purchased.” What they aren’t prepared to do is take a run at Gretzky, who merits at least a little blame for flouting the increasingly rigid rules surrounding use of the Olympics for promotional purposes. Asked whether someone might take up the matter with the Great One, the Canadian Olympic Committee tossed the question to VANOC, which prompt-

ly tossed the question back, saying it’s a team issue falling under the purview of the COC.

Dave Bedford, executive director of revenue generation, brand management and communications for the COC, confirmed the Roots deal had come to the committee’s attention. But he downplayed any perception that the COC might have a beef with Gretzky himself. “We’re monitoring the situation and discussing it at this point,” he said.

An evasion perhaps, but Bedford’s caution is understandable. If the past two weeks have shown anything, it’s that not all sports celebrities are created equal. As the pilot of the Canadian men’s hockey team and arguably the most recognizable face at the Games, Gretzky is one figure the COC—or anyone else who profits from his image—just can’t afford to offend. M

with Jonathon Gatehouse in Turin