Mere Millions

Five years ago, $1 million was seen as a worthy first-place prize. But if one lucky contestant steps into the batter's box at Coors Field in Denver early in July and hits a home run, he--or she--will walk away with a $10-million grand prize. The pile of cash is designed to make Coors' contest stand out at a time when $100-million state lottery pots are prompting consumers to raise their expectations of what constitutes serious money.

"There's definitely some kind of contest inflation going on," said Dave Taylor, corporate communications manager for Adolph Coors Co. "Since any marketing or advertising angle has to be relevant to the target, a million dollars is now 'Been there, done that.' "

"The buzz is what you're going for on this one," said Burke Stinson, spokesman for AT&T;, which recently offered a customer a chance to win $2 million by sinking five consecutive three-point baskets during halftime of a recent National Basketball Assn. playoff game.

"It really sounds ridiculous to be saying this, but $1 million isn't what it used to be in terms of many people's perceptions."

Consumers tend to focus on televised events that increasingly are affiliated with highly visible sporting events. But marketers say the baskets, putts and home runs are secondary to the promotional activities staged for weeks leading up to the contests.

Coors' $10-million contest before a Colorado Rockies game in July, for example, "will definitely be fun, and it might also generate some exciting publicity," said Taylor. "But from a sales vantage point, the most important time period was earlier in the spring when the promotional materials were out there in the stores."

Consumer goodwill generated by the event is "icing on the cake," said Coral Gables, Fla.-based sports marketing consultant Scott Becher. "Whether it's a packaged goods manufacturer like Gillette or a telephone company like AT&T;, they're trying to maximize their promotional impact before the event takes place."

Coors, for example, spent heavily in April and May to promote a smaller, regional home run contest to be held on Sunday. In this one, $1 million will be up for grabs for a lucky contestant who can clear the fence prior to a Los Angeles Dodgers home game that day.

Coors is sponsoring another contest, this one worth $500,000, Friday in San Diego just before a Padres home game.

Coors estimates it has generated $1 million in free publicity with its promotion, according to Joe Wagner, marketing director for Coors' Southwestern Division, based in Irvine.

Coors says the buzz gained momentum when a sports talk show host announced that contestants, including Los Angeles Unified School District employee John Poore, would be participating in Sunday's contest. Coors hired former Dodger star Kirk Gibson to coach the 39-year-old Whittier resident during a Friday practice session at a City of Industry batting cage--a move that the sponsor hopes will lure television news crews for some advance publicity.

Gibson, who 10 years ago hit his improbable home run to win the first game of the World Series against the Oakland Athletics, will also be on hand Sunday to help draw media coverage.

Poore, who hasn't played baseball since high school, says the Coors publicity machine obviously works. "My phone started ringing the day the radio announced the contestants. I've heard from co-workers, friends and people I used to work with."

As $1-million prizes reach down into regional contests like the Coors event on Sunday, sponsors of national promotions are tweaking their campaigns to help make them stand out amid the clutter.

Gillette earlier this year boosted total prize money for its annual football, golf and basketball contests to $2 million. It earmarks half of the $2-million prize--or the $100,000 consolation prize--for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Gillette also has added regional playoff rounds linked to the national contest. The expanded format "allows grass-roots marketing opportunities that can be integrated into the national program," says sports marketing consultant Becher.

Sports-oriented events aren't the only contests pumping up prize amounts. Pillsbury Co.'s Bake-Off has awarded five-figure cash awards since its inception in 1949. But in 1996, Pillsbury increased the top prize to $1 million, making sure it's big enough to capture people's attention.

MasterCard put $2 million on the line Tuesday night when a Chicago doctor tried unsuccessfully to put a puck in the net from the blue line during a break in the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs. The $2 million would have been split with a MasterCard holder watching at home.

Contest sponsors say they root for contestants to clear the fences, sink the putts and make the field goals.

"We want people to win because the buzz is 20 times higher than if someone doesn't kick the field goal," AT&T;'s Stinson said.

When AT&T; invited Florida resident Maynard Trudeau to try to sink five three-point shots during last Friday's NBA playoff game, $2 million was on the line. Trudeau, 74, used his underhanded style to sink the first four shots, worth $250,000 each. But he missed the fifth and final try, which was worth a cool $1 million.

There are bottom-line reasons to cheer contestants. Corporate sponsors use insurance policies to pay out the prizes--and premiums range from 1% to 30% of the total prize amount, depending on the difficulty of the challenge. When contestants fail, sponsors are on the hook for the insurance premium and the consolation prize--in Gillette's case, $100,000 in cash that is to be split between the contestant and a charity.

Insurers set premiums after studying statistics from professional games, said Kenneth Adams, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Western Insurance Information Service, an industry trade group. According to Adams, it would cost a corporate sponsor about $100,000 to insure a $1-million prize for making a basketball shot from half court.

Marketers say it's in their best interest to structure contests in a way that gives amateurs a fighting chance.

Last year, for example, MasterCard's ice hockey contestant had to shoot a puck through a six-inch wide opening in the net from center ice, 90 feet from the goal line. This year, the opening was increased to 15 inches, the shot was 30 feet shorter and contestants had to survive a shootout to appear in the nationally televised finale.

"We don't ask our contestants to do anything that the professional athletes don't do on a daily basis," said Gillette spokesman Eric Kraus. "We don't expect people to climb Mt. Everest in 30 seconds or shoot a puck through an artificial opening."

But even though Gillette hires well-known athletes to coach its armchair athletes, only one of its 16 contestants in the last five years has produced a grand-prize winner. That happened in January when Terry Pledger, a 43-year-old Georgia resident, threw a football through a 30-inch target at halftime of the Orange Bowl game.

Meantime, John Poore is optimistic about his chances of hitting one out of Dodger Stadium on Sunday. He's been spending hours at a batting cage near his home.

"I've seen these things on ESPN," Poore said. "I know it can be accomplished."

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Millions on the Line

Companies use million-dollar contests to drive sales and create goodwill among consumers. As the number of contests increases, some sponsors are increasing the size of their pots. Some of the contests this year include:

Hershey Foods: Million-Dollar Kick. Contestant must kick 35-yard field goal. Grand prize is $1 million. Consolation prize, $10,000 and trip to Hawaii. Contestants made field goals in the last two contests.

AT&T;: $2-million Shootout. Contestant must make five three-point baskets. First four baskets worth $250,000 each. Fifth basket worth $1 million. Most recent finalist made first four shots but missed the fifth.

MasterCard: Million-Dollar Stanley Cup Shot. Contestant must hit puck into 15-inch-wide opening from 60 feet away. The $2-million prize is split between the contestant and a cardholder watching at home. No winner in most recent event.

Adolph Coors: Coors Light Hit a $10-million Homer. Contestant gets three chances to hit home run at Coors Field in Denver on July 10. Coors also hosts the Dodgers Million-Dollar Home Run Contest on Sunday at Dodger Stadium and the Padres $500,000 Home Run Contest on Friday at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.

Gillette: Three-Point Challenge, Major League Strike Challenge, Putting Challenge, Touchdown Challenge. Three of the contests are held each year. The top prize for each event is $2 million. Depending on the event, contestants must make a three-point (college level) basket, throw a major league baseball strike, sink a 10-foot putt or throw a football through a 30-inch target from 10 yards away.

Source: The companies

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