By Barry Janoff
May 26, 2016: In 1926, Buster Keaton starred in the now classic movie, The General, Rudolph Valentino starred in the equally classic The Son of the Sheik; Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined to hit 63 home runs and drive in 262 RBI for the New York Yankees; RCA, GE and Westinghouse formed NBC; and antifreeze was first used in automobiles.
That also was the year that the Harlem Globetrotters, then known as the Savoy Big Five, first showcased their unique basketball skills. Like Ruth, Gehrig and Keaton, many athletes who have been with the team are icons, including Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the team in 1958-59 before going on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA.
The team has been a mainstay not just in sports but also entertainment. The Harlem Globetrotters, a film starring several players then with the team, was released in 1951; a sequel, Go Man Go with Sidney Poitier was released in 1953. A documentary, The Harlem Globetrotters: The Team That Changed The World, was released in 2005.
TV appearances by members of the team include several animated and live-action series as well as guest appearances on such shows as What's My Line, Love Boat, The White Shadow, Scooby-Doo, The Simpsons, Kickin' It, Dog With a Blog and a made-for-TV movie, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island.
In April, the Harlem Globetrotters were mentioned as being the best basketball team ever in a humorous spot from ESPN for the movie, Barbershop: The Next Cut.
Now celebrating their 90th anniversary, under the auspices of parent company Herschend Enterprises, the team is collaborating with the animation department at Savannah College of Art and Design to create character concepts for a potential animated series.
As part of their 90th year celebration, the team commissioned Grammy Award-winning producer/songwriter Teddy Riley (pictured with team members) to remix their legendary theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown" (available for purchase on iTunes).
The original tune was performed by Brother Bones, but has been the team's official theme song since 1952. It is still played before the start of every Globetrotters' game during the famous Magic Circle ball-handling warm-up.
With such partners a Greyhound, Baden (official ball), CTMS Travel, Ticket Galaxy and World Vision (charitable partner), the team recently concluded its domestic and international 2016 season and is preparing for the 2017 season.
They are led by the likes of "Ant" Atkinson, "Buckets" Blake, "Beast" Cunningham, "Handles" Franklin, "Ed Big" Easy Lofton; "TNT" Maddox, who in 2011 became the first woman on the team since 1993; and "Ace" Jackson, who in 2015 became the 13th woman to play for the Globetrotters.
In anticipation of the 90th anniversary, NYSportsJournalism spoke with Howard Smith, who was named team president in January following executive positions with Viacom's Nickelodeon, MTV London and most recently senior vice president of content strategy for Atlanta-based Herschend Family Entertainment, about the legacy of the Harlem Globetrotters, the challenge to stay fresh and unique for a new generation and the importance of marketing to keep the Globetrotters front-and-center.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The Harlem Globetrotters are a well-known brand around the world, celebrating your 90th anniversary. What is the challenge of maintaining the history and traditions of the team but also renewing it to reach a new and young audience?
Howard Smith: Our 90th anniversary is a major milestone for the brand and the organization. We benefit from the fact that generations of people grew up with the Globetrotters. The brand is virtually ubiquitously well known. Not only domestically, but internationally. What is encouraging is that during our 90th anniversary, which covers 2015 and 2016, we've had two of the best years in the company's history. We are connecting with future generations who are discovering the Globetrotters either through their parents, friends or digital and social media platforms.
NYSJ: How are you using social media, and what type of response are you getting?
HS: We recognize that our brand is perfectly suited to the social media environment. There is a component of competition, there is a component of showmanship, there is a component of humor. All of that resonates with today's social generation. We have content that is created by our stars on the road every day. It is being cultivated and produced by our social media team in Atlanta, a new group of people who are focused specifically on building our social and digital media presence. The impact is instantaneous. All of our platforms have all gown significantly. We have hit one million Facebook fans. Our Instagram fan base has grown almost 50% in the past six months. We are doing something right.
NYSJ: Do you think Meadowlark Lemon would have had a blast with Twitter and social media?
HS: (Laughs.) Definitely. I can't imagine how many followers he would have had.
NYSJ: Has the demographic of your core audience changed over the years, or has it gotten younger or older?
HS: Our core audience its typically a family. It is becoming a millennial family. We have really young kids, we have teenagers, who are seeing the Globetrotters in a live environment for the first time. But we also have a lot of fans who are coming on date night, senior citizens who come to re-live their memories of the Globetrotters. It is a very diverse audience.
NYSJ: The Globetrotters have always been successful at integrating themselves into popular culture. How important is that aspect of marketing?
HS: There is an aspect to the Globetrotters that is rooted in competitive basketball. The Globetrotters played an instrumental role in bringing basketball to the world. So we will always be a very competitive, very entertaining basketball experience. ESPN recognized that when they used us as part of a campaign (in April). They understand the impact that the brand and the stars have had on the game. Players such as Marques Haynes, considered one of the best dribblers of all time. Curly Neal. Meadowlark Lemon, clearly one of the best showmen among players from his generation.
NYSJ: Do you see your current stars having the staying power that the legendary Globetrotters have had?
HS: We are building on that legacy with our new stars, players such as "Big Easy" Lofton, "Ant" Atkinson, "Hi-Lite" Bruton, "TNT" Maddox — who as a woman Globetrotter is attracting the next generation of female fans — and others who are moving the team forward. So when we get the Globetrotters integrated into popular culture, we are able to reach an audience beyond basketball and typical Globetrotter fans.
People know the stars who are on the team now. They come out to see 'Big Easy' Lofton, for example, not only for his basketball skills but also for his off-court (celebrity) status. He was a three-time contestant on The Amazing Race and has been on such shows as Disney XD’s Kickin’ It, Cupcake Wars, The Price is Right and Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? Our other stars on on the rise. In addition to traditional media, social media platforms are giving them a voice, as well.
"The Globetrotters played an instrumental role in bringing basketball to the world. We will always be a very competitive, very entertaining basketball experience."
NYSJ: Your background includes executive positions with Nickelodeon and MTV, which both have a unique voice and attitude in entertainment, so what are you bringing from your time with those brands to the Globetrotters?
HS: I would think most people view Nickelodeon, MTV and the Globetrotters as being mainstream. But what is interesting is that each of these brands has a unique voice within their own environment. For the Globetrotters, the comedy, the engagement and interaction with the audience, is unlike any other basketball experience. So my background in live and screen-based entertainment applies directly to what I am doing here with the Globetrotters.
NYSJ: How do you account for the fact that the Globetrotters continue to regenerate their product and resonate with new generations?
HS: I'm blessed have one of the best PR teams and PR agencies — Coyne Public Relations — on the planet. Their charge is to continue the tradition while finding new ways for the Globetrotters to engage. It's shocking when you see the daily reports about the PR hits we get, the profiles we are receiving. It's pretty amazing.
NYSJ: How far ahead do you sit with marketing partners to plan upcoming events"
HS: We just finished our 2016 tour in the U.S. and internationally. Then we quickly shifted to the 2017 tour and planning. We are starting show development, booking venues, identifying players we will be recruiting. So we already are focussed on 2017 and beyond. What I am working on is long-term planning on business and creative development. The backbone of our business is booking high-demand venues. Staples Center. Madison Square Garden. Philips Arena in Atlanta. The new T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. We book 220 venues every year.
That process takes about three months. We already have venue holds in most, if not all, major markets. We are also negotiating with promoters overseas. We have dates booked into 2018. So that process continues every year. We're deep into it right now. We'll be doing post-season, postmortem on all of our marketing, our show execution and more. That all will unfold over the next couple of months. Then we'll start announcing our plans for the 2017 tour in the fall.
NYSJ: The 90th anniversary is big, but you are not that far from 100. Have any plans gone into that as yet?
HS: (Laughs.) That's only ten years away. That is not very far. Even for an organization that has had 90 years of experience, 100 years is a real milestone. We do have it in the back of our mind; we are aiming toward it. There are no definitive plans at the moment, but we will be prepared for the 100th anniversary.
NYSJ: The Globetrotters installed a four-point shot, made from 35 feet or beyond, years ago. Stephen Curry and others can make that shot. Do you think the NBA might adopt that four-point rule at some point?
HS: Just like many aspects of the Globetrotters, we are innovators of the game. We invented the three-point shot before the NBA adapted it. We allowed dunking before the NBA did. The four-point shot has been in place for ten years. That's 12 feet beyond the three-point line. Our players make it regularly. It's a pretty amazing thing to see. We've been 50 years ahead of the NBA in these things. Right now, we are six years ahead with our four-point shot. So it might happen, but not for years.