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Patrick Hruby

Money Talks

The lucrative world of sports motivational speaking 

In board rooms across the nation, these truths are held to be self-evident:

* E-anything is good.

* Losses are bad.

* If Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino can lead Providence to the Final Four and Kentucky to a national championship, he likewise can inspire your regional beer distribution network to post record third-quarter sales.

"Corporate America is fascinated with the lessons from sports teams," said Pat Williams, senior executive vice president of the Orlando Magic. "They're absolutely convinced that there's a way to apply those lessons to their widget factory."

Williams should know. A popular motivational speaker and the author of a half-dozen inspirational tomes, he has lectured hundreds of companies on the keys to success - all at $10,000 to $12,000 a pop.

And he's not alone. Driven by the robust economy and an ongoing obsession with all things jock, the sports talk business is booming. Once consigned to colleges, civic groups and the occasional fast-food franchise opening, sports celebrities have become regulars on the Fortune 500 lecture circuit, accounting for an estimated $500 million annual share of the sprawling $1.2 billion speaking industry.

"The speaking industry has exploded in the last 30 years, from what was basically an academic-oriented business to one that is firmly rooted in entertainment," said Mark French, president of Leading Authorities, a District-based speaking firm. "Sports personalities are people everyone can relate to. They're the icons for success in our society."

Cashing in

Icons don't come cheap. For a 30- to 60-minute speech, golfer and former Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw commands $50,000 to $75,000 - as do Miami Heat coach Pat Riley and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. Former tennis great Billie Jean King and New York Yankees manager Joe Torre earn $30,000 to $50,000. Baltimore Orioles legends Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson get $10,000 to $20,000.

Even Vince Lombardi Jr. - a former USFL executive whose primary claim to fame is . . . well, guess - takes home $5,000 per.

"It's amazing," said Pat Croce, Philadelphia 76ers president and a popular motivational speaker. "Are you kidding me? It's like athletes who can't believe they're getting paid to do what they love. And there are guys getting double what I get. If I get $25,000, they get $50,000. That's unbelievable."

Not that a company can't shop for bargains. For every Super Bowl-winning coach (Dick Vermeil, $35,000), there's a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers boss (Sam Wyche, $10,000 to $20,000). For every Italian-American icon and Boston Celtics coach (Pitino, $50,000 to $75,000), there's an Italian-American icon and college coach (John Calipari, $10,000 to $20,000). And for every still-famous 1984 Summer Olympics gymnastics champion (Mary Lou Retton, $20,000), there's a forgotten 1984 Summer Olympics gymnastics champion (Mitch Gaylord ($5,000 to $10,000).

Can't afford former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula ($20,000 to $30,000)? Try old Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian (substantially less than Shula).

"Corporate America is very similar to the fan that hasn't said 'No, enough - I'm not going to pay any more,' " said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm that books speaking engagements for sports celebrities. "They continue to say, 'OK.'

"We worked on a job recently with a very famous female athlete. A corporation wanted her to speak, but she had a conflict. So the company kept offering her more and more and more - triple her normal fee - until she said she'd do it."

All of which begs the question: Why are corporations like Toshiba and Motorola falling over each other to offer jocks, ex-jocks and jock-sniffers alike copious amounts of cash? After all, when Microsoft boss Bill Gates talks, it pays to listen. But why would a Gates pay to hear someone like race car driver Bobby Rahal ($10,000 to $20,000)?

According to industry experts, the answer varies. For some companies, it's the sincere conviction that a championship-caliber coach can offer legitimate insight into, say, the telecommunications industry. For others, it's simply the opportunity to hobnob with a hero.

"There's been a common rationale for years," Bob Williams said. "The same attributes that make a coach or player successful in athletics are the same things that corporations are trying to instill in their employees - teamwork, overcoming adversity, leadership, setting goals.

"Also, corporate America likes to attach itself to winners."

Either way, sports speakers offer a kind of glamour that few others can match. And as the speaking industry continues to grow - French estimates that around 500 celebrities are yakking for dollars on any given day - glamour is in increasingly high demand.

"You can hear a message from a professional speaker that the audience has never heard of, or you can hear the same message from former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw," Bob Williams said. "And Bradshaw (1999's most popular sports speaker, according to a Burns Sports survey) is going to have more impact, because a lot of people in that audience respect him or are huge football fans. They're going to pay more attention and absorb more of the message."

Secrets to success?

While that message varies from speaker to speaker (or does it? Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden preaches "The Will to Win" while Calipari lectures on "Refusing to Lose"), most sports motivators share a common thread: They're not exactly Kant. Consider:

* Retton, on happiness: "Our faces use 26 muscles to smile, but we need 62 muscles to frown. So smiling is actually a small way to make things easier on yourself. . . . The next time you're feeling down, take a deep breath, relax, and try smiling. . . . I guarantee you'll get a boost."

* Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, on talent development: "If you put a plant in a jar, it will take the shape of the jar. But if you allow the plant to grow freely, 20 jars might not be able to hold it."

* Pat Williams, on tackling problems: "I know you'd rather be on a beach in the Caribbean or skiing at Aspen than going through such a trial. But your present problem will be much easier to bear if you will look at it not as a burden but as an adventure . . . battling adversity makes us feel truly alive and engaged with the adventure of living."

"These are reminder courses," Pat Williams said. "This is not stuff we don't know. To think the right thoughts, say the right words, take responsibility, seek out the right kind of friends, take your hurts and obstacles and turn them into strengths, work hard, persevere - none of that is new, is it?"

Certainly not. But in the world of sports talk, it's never what you say - it's always how you say it. Platitudes on the virtues of teamwork? Boring. Those same platitudes applied to the 1985 Chicago Bears (Mike Ditka, $20,000 to $30,000)? Pure uplift.

"The key to a good communicator is to be able to relate the message to the audience," French said. "If you have stories about people and events that the audience is familiar with, it's going to be a more powerful message. If Phil Jackson talks about the Bulls, no one needs to explain who Michael Jordan is, who the Bulls are, who Scottie Pippen is. The stories ring true. And people like hearing about their heroes."

Unsurprising, then, that many sports talkers labor to personalize their presentations. Former Dolphins running back Larry Csonka ($5,000 to $10,000) likens a botched handoff with former quarterback Bob Griese to snafus in business. Pitino uses former Providence guard (and current Florida basketball coach) Billy Donovan as an example of "deserving success." ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale ($20,000 to $25,000) gives you . . . Dick Vitale.

"With Vitale, you get sweat, saliva, blood," Pat Williams said. "Talk about hemorrhaging."

Then there's former Olympic gymnast Peter Vidmar ($5,000 to $10,000), who demonstrates key points in his lecture by performing segments of his pommel horse routine. Live. In tights.

"I don't talk about other people's trails to success," Croce said. "I use my own life and anecdotes. People can relate to that. I can talk about communication between managers and employees, and how it's no different than 76ers coach Larry Brown and point guard Allen Iverson. I can talk about rags to riches and believing in dreams and goals when I've been rejected 50 times by Harold Katz, the former owner of the 76ers. There's so many things I can carry over."

Upping the ante

While sports talkers once could count on work regardless of talent - remember O.J. Simpson's acting career? - that's no longer the case. From Oprah to Tony Robbins, the motivation market teems with top-notch corporate cheerleaders, upping the ante for the entire industry.

"Ten years ago, you could be a big-name athlete or coach, and you'd get hired strictly on your name," Bob Williams said. "Your presentation could be an A, B, or C level - Corporate America didn't care. But things have changed. Corporations now look at videotapes, get references, check out the speakers before they hire."

As a result, the sports talk industry has become decidedly more professional. Instead of offering generic homilies, many speakers now attempt to target their talks, boning up on their host corporation ahead of time and peppering their presentations with references to the company. Some, like Croce, have even hired verbal coaches to critique and improve their performances.

"It's no different than a coach helping you become a great player," Croce said. "If anyone truly wants to be a motivational speaker and they have a story to tell, they have to learn to tell it in such a way that people sit on the edge of their seats, laughing, crying, jumping up and down, sweating. I make them sweat."

Pat Williams takes it a step further: Like a major league advance scout, he keeps a close eye on the competition. And like an NFL coach, he's always looking to copy what works.

" I watch them like a hawk," he said. "I've read every book. In the last year, I've read Shanahan's book, Torre's book, South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz's book, two books on former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. I walked into the bookstore a week ago and bought Krzyzewski's book. I marked the places I liked, and will have it copied, cut out and filed.

"And whenever these guys are in the Orlando area, I will slip in to watch them. I've scouted Riley, Pitino. You can even get tapes of them, pull stuff off the Internet. I watched Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann's latest video this week."

Scouting. Coaching. Competition. As the stakes keep rising, the sports talk circuit looks more and more like . . . a sport.

The irony isn't lost on Pat Williams. While on his honeymoon in Phoenix in 1997, he dropped in on Vitale, who was speaking at a bakers convention in the hotel where Williams and his wife were staying.

"I want to introduce you to the dumbest idiot in America," Vitale reportedly said, pointing out Williams. "He's right here in the room.

"Why do I call him the dumbest man in America? On the first morning of his honeymoon, guess where he is? At this breakfast to hear me."

Article originally published in The Washington Times