Class of ’90 | What’s it like to negotiate a seven-figure marketing deal with Shaquille O’Neal, a man who stands more than 7 feet tall, weighs 325 pounds, and is frequently described as the most physically powerful athlete in professional sports?
“Shaq is an imposing figure, all right,” says sports-marketing entrepreneur Michael Balser C’90, who’s put together thousands of product-endorsement deals with high-profile athletes during his 20-year career. “But I actually enjoy challenges like that. Back when Shaq came out of LSU and was drafted by the Orlando Magic [in 1992], I was determined to sign him to an endorsement deal that would give my company the right to represent him in the world of collectibles.”
Even then, only two years out of Penn, Balser was regarded as a dynamic sports marketer with a knack for designing innovative deals. But he knew it wouldn’t be easy to get O’Neal’s signature on a marketing contract.
“Let’s face it, Shaq was a red-hot property,” Balser said during a recent interview at the Atlanta offices of his Alliance Marketing Partners. “At least two other major marketers were battling us to get the O’Neal rights, and the competition was absolutely brutal. To win, we knew we’d have to get close to Shaq and stay close to him.”
It was a daunting assignment. Balser knew that even if he prevailed, he could have a Pyrrhic victory on his hands if he gave in to all of O’Neal’s demands.
“Shaq is a great guy, and he’s also very smart,” says Balser. “If I wasn’t careful, I knew he’d ‘take me to the hoop’ and the deal would cost us a fortune.”
What followed reads like the script of Jerry Maguire, with Balser in the Tom Cruise role of the stressed-out super agent.
“Let’s just say I felt a lot of pressure as I went after him,” says Balser, who’s inked more than 1,000 marketing deals with pro athletes over the years. “But we were determined to get it done. With the help of John Thompson III [now the basketball coach at Georgetown University], who was working for me at the time, I got to meet Shaq. We clicked and I started hanging out with him as much as possible.”
“We really hit it off,” he adds. “I took him deep-sea fishing in Hawaii, and we spent a lot of time sitting on the beach and talking.”
A gifted communicator, Balser had to use all his persuasive powers to convince O’Neal that he should choose Alliance to handle his collectible-product endorsements.
“It wasn’t easy,” he says. “More than once, we disagreed about the contract.”
All too often, the 5-foot-8-inch Balser found himself looking up at the 7-foot-1-inch O’Neal while doing his best to maintain a stern, unyielding demeanor. During one heated discussion, Balser remembers taking a deep breath and then telling the nimble giant: “This is all we have for you, Shaq—take it or leave it.”
Shaq growled a bit, Balser remembers, but eventually agreed.
Chasing—and signing—the likes of Kobe Bryant, Drew Bledsoe, Emmitt Smith, Cal Ripken, Brett Favre, Dale Earnhardt, and Troy Aikman has long been a way of life for Balser. Already a highly successful pro-sports entrepreneur at 26—having taken the startup trading-card company Classic Games to $35 million in annual revenues in four years—he says the key to his effectiveness has been “work, work, and more work,” as well as imagining “creative solutions” to complex marketing problems.
Launched in 2000 by Balser and a marketing colleague, Alliance Marketing Partners evolved from two earlier—and very profitable—sports marketing enterprises that Balser created after his initial success at Classic Games. It now has offices in Atlanta and the Philadelphia suburb of Conshohocken.
An Atlanta native whose father (Jack Balser W’55) attended Penn, Balser says he learned to think for himself in a history course taught by Penn Professor Tom Childers.
“Professor Childers had a unique way of challenging your attitudes about culture and history,” says Balser. “Whether we were talking about Wall Street or Watergate, he’d insist that we challenge our ideas, instead of merely defending them.
“These days, when people ask me how a liberal-arts education fits into sports marketing, I tell them that the ability to think critically—on your feet and in real time—is the key to designing marketing initiatives that can really bring home a winner.”