Duo takes sports fare to stage

Pair play off basketball court rivalry

If the producers of the Broadway play “Lombardi” were professional athletes, they’d probably be offensive linemen, since Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser are using some serious marketing muscle to create an opening for sports on the stage. Their play about the life of famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is the longest-running new play now on Broadway. And the pair is developing another project in the genre — “Magic/Bird” — centering on former NBA stars, and rivals, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Of course, “Lombardi” still must prove itself as a definitive financial success: Since opening Oct. 21, “Lombardi” has grossed $8.1 million but has not yet recouped its $3 million capitalization costs. Tickets are currently on sale through June 19, but Ponturo says producers are eyeing a further extension to be announced in May for a show few, if any, figured would have such a long run.

In tackling a topic that is rarely mined for the dramatic stage, Ponturo and Kirmser are tweaking the playbook on how to market a Broadway hit. They’ve brought in pro sports orgs, turned the lobby at the Circle in the Square Theater into a mini Lombardi museum and recently drafted a large brewing company for marketing support, all in the name of drawing untapped audiences to legit theater. After all, sports fans are not known to frequent Broadway.

At the center of the “Lombardi” marketing strategy is the production’s relationship with the National Football League. While the NFL, given the “special producing partner” designation by the production, didn’t financially back the play, the organization agreed to lend its robust marketing arm to the effort. Most notably, that has meant utilizing the league’s Web presence and its ability to send targeted email blasts to potential ticketbuyers. Moreover, it paved the way for tie-ins with local teams, the New York Jets and Giants. “Lombardi” was also featured in Sports Illustrated.

“The marketing message to our fans is more about the uniforms and the football and the Lombardi quotes, the things they’re familiar with,” Tracy Perlman, NFL’s veep of entertainment marketing and promotions said last fall before the play opened.

Equally as important has been the NFL’s willingness to allow the play to use trademarked logos and help secure memorabilia for display in the theater’s lobby. For Ponturo and Kirmser, the lobby, which is adorned with such items as early Super Bowl programs, a bench from a particularly meaningful game in Lombardi’s career and some of the coach’s original notes, is a strong draw for football fans. Along those lines, the producers have brought in numerous NFL notables such as Giants coach Tom Coughlin and Jets owner Woody Johnson for talkback sessions with the audience. While these sessions are not uncommon with any production, Ponturo and Kirmser have emphasized them, recognizing how essential such added features are for those unaccustomed to going to the theater.

One atypical connection has been with Anheuser-Busch. The beer company, which isn’t a Broadway regular, has recently signed on with plans to promote “Lombardi” in some 25 to 50 bars throughout New York, per Ponturo, who used to be an executive with the company. In addition, Dan Lauria, who plays the title role in the production, shot a short motivational video that will be shown at Anheuser-Busch’s annual national sales convention in May.

The producers intend to use the same marketing strategy with their next project, “Magic/Bird.” The National Basketball Assn. will play a role similar to the one the NFL has provided with Lombardi. But Kirmser is quick to point out that the source material will mean some necessary rejiggering to their marketing plan.

“These two gentlemen (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) are alive, so you are going to be looking at slightly different emphasis on how (to reach) audiences,” Kirmser says. “I suspect social media like Twitter and Facebook might be utilized more than with ‘Lombardi.’ ”

Although Ponturo and Kirmser are in the midst of the “Magic/Bird” development process along with Lombardi playwright Eric Simonson, the duo already have their eyes on extending their growing sports franchise. The producers have had talks with Major League Baseball about a project.

Even with all their off-stage efforts, Ponturo and Kirmser recognize it is the quality of an individual production that will determine its performance. To that end, Gil Cates, producing director at the Geffen Playhouse, believes that boosters of the sports genre should not necessarily read too much into “Lombardi’s” longevity.

“You don’t need to be a sports fan to know who Vince Lombardi is,” he says. “I don’t see (‘Lombardi’) as a sports play, but a bio play. It’s about a famous person.”

Nevertheless, if Ponturo and Kirmser win again with “Magic/Bird,” you can expect the competition in this field to increase quickly.

“Producers want to be in business on something that’s success,” Cates says. “I’m sure more success will mean a Mickey Mantle project is not far behind.”

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