Eat your heart out, Spalding.
Wilson Sporting Goods has had hit products and celebrity endorsers before--Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras, the National Football League. So has rival Spalding Sports Worldwide.
But there's never been a star quite like "Wilson," the volleyball that's become a Hollywood hero since Tom Hanks befriended it on a deserted island in the movie "Cast Away."
"We're in disbelief at the amount of attention it's getting," said Chris Considine, general manager of the company's team-sports division.
Just as it did to Hanks' character, the famous ball washed up at the Chicago firm's feet by chance. It was an idea that originated with the film's makers.
The sporting-goods manufacturer hopes the publicity can help its bottom line. Its executives believe the movie's plugs could boost business for volleyballs and other Wilson goods, and expect to market a ball with a face like Hanks' buddy.
"This won't translate into anywhere near the sales that Michael Jordan or Vince Carter or Venus and Serena Williams generate for us," Considine said. "But from a sheer exposure standpoint, nothing we've ever done can match 'Cast Away.' "
Even without a speaking line, "Wilson" gets plenty of screen time as Hanks' only companion on the South Pacific island where his character, FedEx executive Chuck Noland, spends four years otherwise alone after surviving a plane crash.
The ball is found inside a FedEx package that washes up on the island with him. Noland paints a face on it using his own blood and names the ball Wilson, for its manufacturer--although the real-life inspiration may have come from Hanks' wife, Rita Wilson.
On Wednesday, one of the three original "Wilsons" used in the movie was sold in an online auction for $18,400.
Fame for the volleyball comes at a time when Wilson Sporting Goods is riding the momentum of a turnaround after years of struggles.
The 88-year-old company, once known largely for tennis rackets and balls, ended a string of seven money-losing years in 1998 and has since seen big sales and profit increases. It recorded sales of $587 million in 1999, about half in the United States, and increasing sales in Japan and the Asian-Pacific market.
Considine said the company's annual marketing budget is equal to about 10% of annual sales.
But a bloodstained volleyball may make a bigger splash than anything funded by a multimillion-dollar ad budget.
"Sometimes you get lucky," Considine said.
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