Sports Nut

We Were the Champions

Washed-up sports stars and their money-making schemes.

Mike Ditka

When the 1985 Chicago Bears held a very public reunion last month, some fans surely wondered why the champs were making so much noise about getting back together. After all, Jim McMahon and Walter Payton owned restaurants in town after retiring. Dan Hampton, Tom Thayer, and Steve McMichael show up on local television and radio every other week. And a day without Mike Ditka in Chicago is still like a day without a breeze off the lake—it happens, but rarely.

This year, the Bears have professionalized their self-promotion by incorporating as 1985 World Champions XX, Inc. The president of the firm handling the team’s marketing told me the ex-champs hope to raise money for after-school programs and the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation. There’s profit to be had, too. On the group’s official Web site, you can buy a T-shirt, bid on vintage merchandise, and invite real live ex-Bears to your next corporate outing or backyard barbecue—”a minimum of 3 Bears per event, please.” The team is also planning to launch a more diverse apparel line and a selection of logo-festooned groceries in local chains. And once the NFL season starts, the Super Bowl Shufflers will make regular television appearances, a documentary film, and appear at “a big blowout event during the Super Bowl.”

The Bears aren’t the first championship team to cash in. The 1977-1978 Bronx Zoo Yankees and the 1972 Dolphins both formed similar corporations. The 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic hockey team signed an exclusive contract with a company called Grandstand Sports Memorabilia to sell autographed team merchandise and coordinate charity fund-raising events and motivational speaking gigs. But the 1969 New York Mets are the champs of championship flogging. Upon the team’s 25th anniversary in 1994, the Amazin’ Mets formed Miracle of ‘69 Enterprises, Inc. The group staged golf tournaments and cruises and sold innumerable collectible tchotchkes—limited-edition wooden plaques, team pictures, 25th-anniversary prepaid calling cards. Five years later, the crew got back together to commemorate their World Series victory all over again.

The ‘69 Mets and the ‘85 Bears are the kind of iconic teams you’d expect to reappear and ask you to remember their greatness. But other teams that would seem logical choices for nostalgic marketing—say, the 1978 Steelers and the 1980 Phillies—have been strangely dormant. What’s the secret to success in the success-peddling field?

First, and most obviously, you need a championship season. Nobody wants to wait in line to get an autograph from the also-rans and better-luck-next-timers. A simple, no-frills title isn’t good enough. You need an über-championship storyline, preferably with some kind of miracle attached. Undersized, scrappy bunch of nobodies beating back the icy Red Menace? That’ll do. Failing that, you should come from a victory-starved town, win once, and immediately get back to losing. People get misty about seasons, not dynasties—tough luck to Bradshaw’s Steelers, Jordan’s Bulls, and Gretzky’s Oilers. A theme song is nice, too. Even today, if someone says “shufflin’ crew,” I’m liable to bust out with “shufflin’ on down, doin’ it for you.”

There also has to be something likable about the team other than their victories. The 1985 Bears own this category. Just look at all those nicknames: the Punky QB, the Fridge, Mongo, Samurai Mike. Other than enthusiastic reliever Tug McGraw, who died in 2004, the 1980 Phillies were led by a dour misanthrope, a compulsive liar, and an obnoxious red-ass. Contentiousness ain’t color. (This does not apply to New York teams; aggression is a civic virtue in the Big Apple.)

It’s also important that the team forge a team identity. Bulk marketing is easiest when the players are interchangeable. Since championship basketball teams are usually dominated by a single star—Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan—round-ball nostalgia tours are infrequent. On superstar-led teams, the bench-warmers all blend together. Rick Fox becomes Devean George becomes Slava Medvedenko. The one star on the 1969 Mets, Tom Seaver, played in only 39 games. One ‘69 Met is just as good as any other ‘69 Met.

The final ingredient: a marketing-savvy bit player who will go to great lengths to promote his association with a championship team. Call it the Shamsky Maneuver. Not only did platoon outfielder Art Shamsky organize the ‘69 Mets reunions, he also owned a restaurant called Art Shamsky’s Legends and co-authored a book called The Magnificent Seasons. Other Shamskyites include Mike Eruzione, whose agent handles the merchandising contracts for the rest of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, and Shaun Gayle, the 1985 Bears’ ringleader. Gayle, a nickel back in 1985, would rank somewhere between Kevin Butler and Emery Moorehead in a Chicago popularity contest. Still, he has just as many Super Bowl XX rings as the Fridge and Jim McMahon.

So, who’s next in the live-forever lineup? Danny Heep and Bruce Berenyi are probably hoping that it’s the 1986 Mets. Owner Fred Wilpon, long estranged from many of the team’s hard-living stars, recently hired Darryl Strawberry as a spring training instructor and has made overtures to Dwight Gooden. Last year’s Detroit Pistons, with their team-first, hard-nosed mentality, are also probably good for a reunion. And the 2004 Boston Red Sox are the surest thing in the history of pro sports incorporation. Businessmen from Natick and Worcester will no doubt pay through the nose to have Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts cut the ribbon at 2024’s sparkling new supermarkets and shopping malls.

Pro sports’ memory-mongers-in-waiting would do well to take notes on the 1985 Bears’ anniversary. The team’s marketing coordinator told me that the champs are “trying to build brand equity that’s going to have resonance for the long term.” Those jars of peanut butter emblazoned with the heads of Dennis Gentry and Mark Bortz should have a long shelf life.