There is a current marketing campaign that utilizes a fictional spokesman labeled "The Most Interesting Man in the World." That guy barely holds a candle to Tony Ponturo, who is a producer for such plays as Lombardi, Memphis and Hair; was the lead sports and media marketing man at Anheuser-Busch for nearly 30 years; played high school football; worked as a page at NBC Studios for Saturday Night Live; and has a Who's Who of business, sports and entertainment big-wigs on his speed dial. Most important, they always take his call.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted April 27, 2011)
"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King." — Hamlet, William Shakespeare
When it comes to players on the field and plays on Broadway, Tony Ponturo is the man with the sports and entertainment golden marketing playbook.
From 1982 through 2008, Ponturo helped to create, define and drive Anheuser-Busch's sports and entertainment marketing strategy. He joined the company in 1982 as director of media services, was named vp-media and sports marketing in 1991, in 1991 he was named president and CEO for Busch Media Group and in 1998 added the title and responsibilities of vp-global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch Inc., a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc.
During his tenure, Anheuser-Busch and its key brands, including Budweiser and Bud Light, became synonymous with major sports events, including the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and Nascar. Ponturo also channeled Anheuser-Busch's sports marketing power to become the exclusive beer company during Super Bowl broadcasts at a time when rival Coors Light had the distinction of being the official beer sponsor of the NFL.
He left in December 2008 and a month later founded Ponturo Management Group, LLC, a New York-based firm that specializes in consulting, managing, investing and producing in sports, media and entertainment properties.
More recently, Ponturo has turned his love of theater and the arts into a successful run as a Broadway entrepreneur. Along with producing partner Fran Kirmser, the roster includes Memphis, which won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical (performances of which were filmed for a limited run in movie theaters on April 28, April 30, May 1 and May 3); the Tony Award winning revival of Hair; and Lombardi, which opened in October 2010 at Circle in the Square Theatre and recently had its 200th performance. Lombardi, which stars Dan Lauria as Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi and Judith Light as Marie Lombardi, also credits as a special producing partner the NFL, marking the league's first Broadway alliance.
The success of Lombardi — written by Academy Award-winning playwright Eric Simonson, based on the biography When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss — was a catalyst in Ponturo and Kirmser giving a green light to Magic/Bird, a play scheduled to open in Spring 2012 that chronicles the intertwining lives and relationship of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The NBA is also on board as a special producing partner.
Ponturo spoke with NYSportsJournalism about the power of sports marketing, the NFL and its current labor situation and the quest to make Lombardi a landmark on Broadway.
NYSportsJournalism: Considering how much money is involved, what do you see happening in the situation between NFL owners and players?
Tony Ponturo: The only influence I have is hope. And I would hope that this does not drag on to a time where games are cancelled. From my experience, I know that these things always go the the 11th hour and even the 11th hour and 59th minute. And then things get done. For the league and players, there is just too much at stake for a deal not to get done. They are all benefiting so much that they will find a way to work it out.
NYSJ: Are you speaking as a fan or someone who has been intimately involved with the NFL as a marketing partner?
TP: As a fan, that's what I would want to happen. From a business side, we have seen the NHL shut down for a season (2004-05), MLB canceling a World Series due to a strike (1994), baseball and football missing parts of their seasons. So there is a history where there is no resolution and there is damage. It takes a lot of time to recover. The NHL have done a good job of rebuilding, but it took several seasons and, in some ways, they may still be recovering. With the NFL, they are working on the economic scale, but you don't want it to hurt the brand. Consumers and fans will find other things to do.
NYSJ: You were with Anheuser-Busch for almost 30 years right in the middle of their sports marketing strategy. What do you think about their six-year deal making Bud Light the official beer sponsor of the NFL, which they are taking over from Coors Light, and what type of weight does that carry with consumers and football fans?
TP: They're excited about it. I have found that it usually takes about a year for consumers to fully understand that a transition has taken place. But you will also find consumers who would say that Bud or Bud Light has been the official beer of the league even though Coors Light held that designation [from 2002-2010]. Consumers see all of the other activity that takes place. Anheuser-Busch has exclusivity during Super Bowl broadcasts, they have deals with  NFL teams, they are very active in other NFL areas. Consumers don't always delineate the status of official NFL beer sponsor. It's more who they see on a regular basis when they watch football or are at a game. So if they see TV spots or sponsorship and marketing at a local level, that's where an association can develop. And Anheuser-Busch was very aggressive in those areas even before it became the NFL's official beer sponsor.
NYSJ: How will the NFL work with Anheuser-Busch to help educate fans and consumers about the new alliance?
TP: What the NFL has done a pretty good job of is making the sport a 12-month season. There is no telling what might happen this year because of the situation between the owners and players. But what you have is the Super Bowl in February, and then you go into the combines, the NFL Draft, pre-training camps, the game at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and then then season itself. So there is perhaps a lull right after the Super Bowl, but then it picks up again. Anheuser-Busch will promote their official beer status in commercials and other promotions and make full use of the NFL logos and game footage. Which, quite frankly, Coors Light did a very good job in that respect.
NYSJ: How do you think Coors Light will respond during the NFL season?
TP: They will continue to be aggressive and do activations attached to football. They also have connections with other sports that gives them exposure to sports fans and consumers, so that is a big part of their strategy. What it means for Anheuser-Busch is that they will step up their NFL activations even more. They will be part of the NFL Draft, where they have never had a presence. They get to use the NFL logos and badges in all marketing. They didn't have access to the Super Bowl logo, which they now do. That is why the Bud Bowl was created [in 1989], because Miller had exclusivity to the Super Bowl logo.
NYSJ: What do you think Vince Lombardi would say about the NFL situation?
TP: He was a practical, no-nonsence type of guy. So especially knowing the economics of today's game, he would want to sit down and work it out. This is speculation on my part, but I think he would want the lawyers out of the room and he would tell the participants to sit down and get it resolved.
"Vince Lombardi would want the lawyers out of the room and he would tell the participants to sit down and get it resolved."
NYSJ: Do you see the sports marketing opportunities around the Super Bowl continuing to expand, especially with Super Bowl L just a few years off?
TP: When you look at the Super Bowl, it already has everything in its favor. There is a two-week opportunity to focus on marketing, the PR, to get everyone paying attention to what has become a holiday in our country. It transcends sports. Look at The Masters. Good for them to do continue to do what they have done for all these years. People really do respect traditions and like traditions. In our personal lives, there are holidays. People get together for picnics. So when sports establishes that, where you plan to be nowhere else but with your family, your buddies on Super Bowl Sunday, it's going to continue to grow. I'm sure what the NFL would like to do is to continue to expose the sport internationally to see where they can go. Do they have a team in London? In Mexico? Will they have a Super Bowl outside of the U.S.? That will all be part of the process.
NYSJ: Is sports marketing still a powerful tool and are athletes still regarded as credible spokespersons when it comes to marketing and consumers?
TP: Sports is a major part of the leisure time of a lot of people and in that respect sports marketing is still a strong tool. If marketers can show up in and around that environment and genuinely tie into that passion, that is still a strong way to reach those consumers. Regarding the athletes themselves, in today's world, where there is 24-hour coverage on them and everything they do, consumers have access to all the qualities of athletes, be they good or bad. At the end of the day, if you are a brand, what you are trying to buy into is that one plus one equals two and a half or three. If you are Sony, for example, and you use Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake in commercials, what you actually are saying in a way is that you need some extra quality, credibility, relevance or hipness in my brand that I can't deliver on my own. So you put icons and talent together in a commercial. But if you get people who don't project that image, or who do something that impacts their image in a negative way, then one plus one could equal a half or zero. And that's not what you want.
NYSJ: LeBron James seemed to be out of favor for a time after 'The Decision' last summer, but now he is again in new commercials for State Farm, Sprite and his other marketing partners. What does that say to you about athletes and consumers?
TP: People are loyal to brands and they like to see loyalty. At first, when he left Cleveland, that was perceived as not being loyal. But we all as consumers have short memories. So when LeBron delivered on the court for the Miami Heat and stayed credible to who he is — a stand-up guy, a personable guy, a player who delivered the goods — people sort of forgave him. And, quite frankly, the people most passionate about that particular issue were in Cleveland and Ohio. Others were more interested in where he was going, and ultimately more understanding from a business perspective that you have to maximize your opportunities and move on. People are now reacting to how he delivers.
NYSJ: Given the situations with Tiger Woods and other athletes who hurt their marketing images, how do you see companies planning their future strategies regarding sports marketing?
TP: It is getting tougher and tougher. And it is not inexpensive. My guess is that corporations will continue to be careful. You have to hope that, at the end of the day, all fingers crossed, that image you bought into is going to stand up for the length of the campaign.
NYSJ: Would that apply to Tiger Woods if he starts to win tournaments and, as he did at The Masters, show that he still can deliver from a sports marketing standpoint?
TP: Tiger has delivered the goods, he will continue to deliver the goods. He will be back eventually. For him, it was sort of a combination of his personal life and injuries. He is getting older. But people still watch him to see what he will do and how he will react. At The Masters, it showed me that he was still very passionate about the game. If he continues to respect the game and is smart about his personal life, he will be attractive to sponsors.
"People who may have been skeptical about a sports-themed play on Broadway now see that sports provides great stories, great emotions."
NYSJ: Lombardi recently passed the 200 performance mark. What has surprised you most about the play?
TP: Fran Kirmser, my producing partner, and I believed in Lombardi very much. If we didn't we wouldn't have taken all the effort to put it together and put it on Broadway. That said, overall we are very proud that it continues to be on Broadway and is now the longest-running play on Broadway. That is very gratifying. What it shows is that people who may have been skeptical about a sports-themed play on Broadway now see that sports provides great stories, great emotions. If you do it right and artistically, touch people in an emotional way and get good word-of-mouth, it can be a success.
NYSJ: Does the play now sell itself or is there still creative marketing that keeps it top of mind?
TP: We work hard every day, every week, to market the play, to get out public relations stories about the people who are in the audience and about the play itself. Probably the most satisfying thing for me has been the tremendous word-of-mouth. You can do all the marketing in the world to get people there for the first time. But it really takes your friend, neighbor, relative to say to you, 'Hey, I just saw Lombardi, and you really should go to see it.' That's what stimulates it, and why it has passed its seventh month.
NYSJ: It seems as if the positive word-of-mouth is coming not only from general audiences, but also from people who actually knew Vince Lombardi. How satisfying is that?
TP: Very satisfying. When we undertook the production of this play, we wanted it to be true and authentic to the people who played for him or worked with him. If the real Paul Hornung, Dave Robinson and Jim Taylor came to see it, we would want them to leave saying, 'They captured the essence of the man.' And especially to those who were closest to him. His son, Vince Lombardi Jr., recently came, and it was the first time he had seen the play. He was very complimentary. There always are challenges when you are putting together a production. But especially so when you are dealing with sports. Those of us who are sports fans, we are a tough audience when it comes to credibility and authenticity. We can be very quick to see when something does not meet those standards. So when the real players, the coaches, the family members give it a thumbs-up about its credibility, that is very gratifying. And the NFL is involved, so that comes with their approval.
NYSJ: How involved has the NFL been in its first Broadway production alliance?
TP: They have been a very strong supporter. Helping to get the messages out. Supporting with our marketing and PR efforts. We ran ads during the playoffs with Dan Lauria as Vince Lombardi, which aired on NFL Network and during games on network broadcasts. At the NFL Draft, they will be running our 15-second commercial periodically during the three days. We will also have a display table at Radio City Music Hall, giving out information about the play and talking to people who are football fans about Lombardi. So our presence at NFL events has been on-going since the play opened.
NYSJ: Have you been working with any of the NFL teams?
TP: The New York Giants have been supportive all along. Vince Lombardi was an assistant coach with the team (1954-1958), so they have a heritage connected to him. They were extremely helpful during the course of the season. We had three different nights during which we displayed the Super Bowl trophies and they did a lot of promotion at the New Meadowlands. We did a talk-back with [head coach] Tom Coughlin where he sat and answered questions from the audience. Some of the players [including Sean Landetta and Bart Oates] came in and signed autographs. Woody Johnson, owner of the Jets, also did a talk-back with us.
NYSJ: How about the Green Bay Packers, the team with which Lombardi is most closely associated?
TP: We went to Green Bay about two or three months before the show opened on Broadway to try to get a good feel about the area, about Lambeau Field. The team took us into the Packers Hall of Fame and also a special archive area where they had notes, letters and play diagrams from Lombardi, which few people ever see. They allowed Dan Lauria to really experience things that Vince Lombardi lived. During the season, some of their executives came to the show and went backstage to speak with the actors. We have a talk-back planned with Jim Taylor [a member of four Packers NFL title teams] for April 30. And, of course, they cooperated by winning the Super Bowl. [Laughs.]
NYSJ: Lombardi spent his last season in the NFL as head coach of the Washington Redskins, so have they been supportive as well?
TP: Very much so. [Team owner] Dan Snyder was at the show and he brought Sam Huff [who played for Lombardi with both the Giants and Redskins]. Mike Shanahan [head coach of the Redskins] was at one show and was very complimentary.
NYSJ: You mentioned the Lombardi spots that ran on NFL Network, Fox and elsewhere, in which Dan Lauria is in character and quoting some of Lombardi's famous lines. Do you find that some people believe he is the real Vince Lombardi?
TP: When we were casting the role, a lot of people who are involved with the theater kept asking which big movie star we would hire to play the lead. Dan has had a great career and done some very credible work [including Independence Day and as Fred Savage's dad on TV's The Wonder Years], but he would be the first to tell you that he is not a big movie star. But it was very important to us in casting the role of Vince Lombardi that when you saw the actor on stage you felt you were watching the real person. Dan show a lot of respect for Vince Lombardi the man and Lombardi the role. He captured the essence of who Vince Lombardi was and how he expressed himself. And it is pretty amazing how similar he looks to the real Vince Lombardi. So if someone watching the play or the TV spots believe it is the real Vince Lombardi, that shows that we did our homework.
NYSJ: You are now in the process of putting together Magic/Bird for Broadway. What are the challenges you face, in particular since both men are still very much in the public eye?
TP: The whole process has been different because our playwright, Eric Simonson, who also did Lombardi, is working with them and talking with them to hear their stories, to get their special insights. Their lives have been well-documented, and they have been part of the sports consciousness since the 1970s. So we are trying to absorb all of that. But having the personal sit-downs is very important. Obviously, the fact that they are still alive, we want to make sure that the play feels right and true and authentic to them. And they will be in the audience, as will people who know them, which makes it especially challenging to be authentic and accurate. That makes it both exhilarating and challenging, but a challenge that we are embracing.
NYSJ: Many people associate you with sports due to your long and successful tenure at Anheuser-Busch. So is it surprising when people see that you have produced Broadway shows such as Memphis, the recent version of Hair, Lombardi and the upcoming Magic/Bird?
TP: People who don't know me mostly are surprised, and they do ask where my passion for Broadway came from. People who know me personally know that I have always enjoyed the theater and arts. From a business standpoint, at Anheuser-Busch we were recognized for our sports connections. But during the last 10 or 15 years I was there, probably a third to 40% of what we did was entertainment related. We were part of the Academy Awards. Budweiser sponsored the Rolling Stones tour as well as other entertainers. So, through the company, I was exposed to the entertainment side as well as the sports side, although it never really got me that much recognition. Personally, I have been involved in entertainment for a long time. When I was in college [at Villanova University], I worked as a page at NBC Studio in New York and worked at the very first Saturday Night Live [Oct. 11, 1975], which had George Carlin as the host. So my roots go back to working as a page and an intern.
NYSJ: What did you think of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, which was the first March Madness event under the new CBS-Turner Sports deal?
TP: They did a great job. Fans had the opportunity to see every game. They had the opportunity to hear from commentators who were new to the Tournament, such as Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. Critics who may have complained about having to flip around [among four channels] certainly were overshadowed by the coverage, which had great ratings across all the networks. [Over the course of the deal] as long as the exposure, excitement and affordability is there, on TV, in person, then it's fine. The one thing that is in favor of the NCAA Tournament is that everything is at stake with every game. Anyone who watches a lot of sports during the regular season, you can watch half a game, three innings, the impact is not as great. But if it is one game where everything is on the line, you tend to stay more involved.
NYSJ: Vince Lombardi died of colon cancer, so how is Lombardi the play helped to raise awareness and potential funds?
TP: Vince Lombardi did not address the problem he had. He did not get screened. You wonder now what would have happened if he had taken care of himself. So it seemed appropriate to get the message and awareness out to the public. One of the ways we have raised awareness was that in March, we donated $2 from every ticket to the American Cancer Society to help them in their fight to find a cure for and raise awareness of colon cancer. We also worked with the Susan Cohan Colan Cancer Foundation, which was named after a young woman who died of the disease. April is designated as Susie's Cause National Colon Cancer Screening Month, and on April 8 we donated proceeds from Lombardi tickets to the Foundation. For us, it's the right thing to do and something we will continue to do. It's something we are very proud of.
NYSJ: What is your association with the Business of Sports education program?
TP: Part of the agenda of [New York] Mayor Bloomberg is to involve high school students in programs that will help to drive attendance and graduation. This integrates programs about sports and business into a regular class routine that exposes students to potential careers in sports and sports management, offers internships and brings into the classroom environment people who are part of the industry. I am part of a group of people who see this as a way to give back a little bit and to help students. It started in 2009 with freshman and sophomore classes, but will expand next year to juniors and hopefully continue to grow.
"What I would like to see is that no one takes anything for granted. Keep the credibility of the game intact. Sponsorships should be smart. Not intrusive."
NYSJ: What do you see moving forward regarding sports marketing?
TP: What I would like to see is that no one takes anything for granted. Keep the credibility of the game intact. Sponsorships should be smart. Not intrusive. Make sure that the games themselves do not become gimmicky or over the top. You want to be respectful of the process and the way in which sponsorships are used. Fans and consumers respect the games and they want them to be respected.
NYSJ: What about the sports landscape itself?
TP: What is amazing is that with the technology and information that is available, sports and sports marketing will continue to grow and evolve. When I started with Anheuser-Busch in 1982, there wasn't even a term 'sports marketing.' When you look back at the games and stadiums in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was no signage on the ice, there was less signage on the walls. So when you look at where we have come in the last 25, 30 years, who knows where we are going? Certainly the global penetration will become more pervasive. Look at ESPN and the way they are trying to educate people about international soccer, about cricket. The globalization of sports will be a big part of the landscape.
NYSJ: So someday will there be a show on Broadway called Ponturo?
TP: [Laughs.] I doubt it!