Monday, June 7, 2010

Catching Up With Jim McVay

From 1982-1986, Jim McVay served as the Director of Marketing for the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League. During that time, he devised the marketing strategies for the most innovative and fan-friendly product in the entire league. Today, McVay serves as the President/CEO of the Outback Bowl, one of the most popular and successful games of the college bowl season. McVay recently sat down to reflect on the era of good times and fun known around these parts as “Banditball.”

Q. What were the challenges of introducing a new football team into this market?

A. The Bucs were not successful when we started out. They were getting ready to go on strike. Nobody liked Hugh Culverhouse. He was not universally accepted. The guy wouldn’t spend any money on the team. Then the labor strike during the 1982 season enabled us to get the door open.

Then along came John Bassett hiring good-looking Steve Spurrier, a Heisman Trophy-winner from Florida with a great reputation. You had John Reaves, Jimmie Jordan, Florida, Florida State, Miami kids with local connections. Then you had Burt Reynolds, the number one box office draw. Back then was bigger than Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, all these guys combined. He was number one by far. Jerry Reed did our in-stadium music.

So here comes this fun, show-bizzy atmosphere built around Steve Spurrier and his wide-open offense. You talk about putting it together with a marketing blueprint. We had all the elements lined up. You have to have the right product, you have to have the right promotion, you have to have the right packaging, and you have to have the right pricing. It was a wonderful combination, and that’s why the Bandits did so well. It’s the other teams in the USFL that struggled a little. Not everybody was as well-managed as the Bandits and had the same organizational philosophy as John Bassett.

Q. Why is it that the Bandits seemed to have figured out the secret to succeeding, but so many other markets struggled?

A. If everybody would have followed John’s blueprint, the league would have had a chance. What really caused the problems was losing control of the salary parameters that had been established for the players. You don’t need to pay the players a ton of money. You hire a couple of high-priced guys and pay them some glamour money. When you start competing with the NFL, position by position, salary for salary when their revenues dwarf ours, sooner or later owners are going to say, “Why are we taking these losses?” That’s where the league got in trouble. Too many owners were spending money they didn’t have.

Q. Was this a league-wide problem or just a few rogue owners?

A. There were a few rogue owners, but it’s tough to tell guys who are multi-millionaires or billionaires how to run their business. They’ll do what they want to do. But what needed to be done was to get everyone to agree to stay within a certain financial parameter that met our television revenue and projected gates so that we could sustain ourselves and build an audience year after year. Then you get your larger television ratings and then your gate grows. Guys got ahead of themselves, didn’t like the idea of losing games, so they started throwing money at different players and positions that really didn’t make sense in our league. There is a market and there is a need for spring football. We really could have made that thing work, but guys got a little anxious, got a little spendy, and that’s how we got in trouble.

Q. The Bandits were known for their creative promotions. What were some of your favorites?

A. We did a little of everything. We had a Miss Tampa Bay bikini contest, we had a Krazy Karat contest where we gave away diamonds, we had mortgage burnings, we gave away a million dollar deferred annuity, we had car giveaways. We had seven automobiles out on the field for one game. We gave away seven brand new beautiful Dodge cars, and as the cars were being taken off the field, one of the cars disappeared. It was gone. Somebody got in the car, drove out the stadium and kept going. The police said what happened, were there any witnesses? I said, “yeah, there were 50,000 witnesses!” We never did find that car.

We did enough things around the game to add an element of entertainment and pizzazz to a product that people wanted. You can’t have a bad product and do all this fun, gimmicky marketing stuff. People want to watch football, and if they’re treated properly with the right promotions, packaging, pricing, then you’ve got a chance. John and the group were smart enough to give it a local flair with guys who had local ties, and then you do all the fun stuff. We used to get complaints from the concessionaire during our games. They’d tell us to stop doing all this halftime stuff because nobody was coming down to buy popcorn or hot dogs.
Everybody was staying in the stands at halftime!

You’ve got 100 beautiful girls on the field in bikinis or Jack Harris standing out there in a fireman’s suit burning mortgages and the table catches on fire, or we’re giving away diamonds. We made the fans feel like we respected them and weren’t going to take advantage of them. These things worked because they were wrapped around professional football. You’ve got to have the right product.

Q. What do you remember about the Smokey and the Bandit saga of 1985?

A. This was great. In the beginning, we developed an idea to have a black horse named Smokey, and a man dressed in black with a red bandana who was The Bandit. This became our logo. We thought it would be appropriate to have guy ride out onto the field to the “Banditball” theme song by Jerry Reed. It was really a great entrance.

So we’re doing some promotion, engaging and activating local sponsors. Kash n’ Karry was one of our big sponsors, and the horse and rider were part of the marketing and promotional concept with the store.

Before the 1985 season, the rider – who also owned the horse -- came to us and said because we are using their likenesses in advertisements that he wants to be paid “x” amount of dollars more. So I sat down with John Bassett in his office and I told him that the guy who rides the horse wants some more money or he’s not going to do it. Bassett, in his quick-witted and clear-thinking way, looks at me and says, “You think that’s the only black horse in Florida?”
I think the guy ended up coming around, but the brand had been built with a lot of money invested in advertising and promotions. There were a lot of moving parts that made us successful.

Unfortunately, the strength of who we were, and our model, couldn’t carry over to every team in the league to build the continuity and sustainability to make the league work. All we could do from our perspective is run our franchise the best that we could, and we did. We were called the model franchise of the USFL. The logos, the colors, the music, the atmosphere, everything was first class.

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