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Untarnished gold

D'Alessadro finds Marathon safer bet than Olympics

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 04/15/99

Speaking his mind

Some of John Hancock president David D'Alessandro's thoughts on ...

... The Marathon: "I'd like the race to be bigger. We've discovered you can handle 50,000 people on the course and there's some talk about expanding it next year. It'd be better to be a bigger race without being a show business race. One of the great things is that it's virtually a non-commercial race from a television and fan standpoint. I'm not sure how to improve it.''

... The New York and Los Angeles races: "New York has become pretty much a fun race, less competitive. [Race director] Al Steinfeld and those guys will argue about that, but they generally don't have more than 10 real world-class runners in the race. LA has none. So the only world-class marathon is in Boston.''

... The lack of a US men's contender: "I'm sure we'll have one again sometime, but I'm afraid we'll have just one and not a contingent of them like the Kenyans do. We've had some good American runners in the 10Ks and that's part of the problem. They can run a 10K every weekend. They can pick up $10,000 or $20,000 and run again. Given a choice of running a smattering of 10Ks or having to kill themselves running a marathon twice a year ... ''

... Juan Antonio Samaranch: "I think he'll declare victory, then exit. But the likelihood of his great dream, of attaining the Nobel Peace Prize, is gone. So right now, it's about salvaging his reputation and ostensibly leaving the Olympic movement in reasonable shape.''

... IOC reforms: "I desperately wanted to support what they did in Lausanne last time. I was hoping they would do more, but I didn't see anything. Maybe I missed it.''

... The Olympic image: "For the rest of our lifetimes, the Olympics will have fallen from favor because people will have seen something they hadn't seen in the past - the greed and the avarice and the privilege behind the scenes.''

From a chair in his all-windows office on the 59th floor of the Hancock tower, David D'Alessandro can see past the Common, past the airport, and nearly to Olympic headquarters in Switzerland. Is that His Excellency Juan Antonio Samaranch sidling toward the egress of the Chateau de Vidy?

''I think he's looking for the door, looking for an exit here,'' muses D'Alessandro, who has been observing the Lords of the Rings with a more critical eye than most these last few months.

If D'Alessandro seems a bit more preoccupied with what's happening in Lausanne than in Boston on the eve of the 103d Boston Athletic Association Marathon, it may be that he's got $40 million tied up in tarnished Olympic rings. And that the Marathon, which dates back to the year after the first modern Olympics and which the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. has sponsored since 1986, has been on quiet cruise for years now with few bumps in the macadam.

''Some people miss the controversy about the race,'' says D'Alessandro, who got Hancock involved with the Marathon when he was its corporate communications chief and is now president. ''It's getting a little dull without the controversy.''

Not that D'Alessandro is complaining. Hancock modernized and revitalized the race when it was in danger of becoming a 19th-century curiosity and arguably has made it the planet's most attractive and competitive 26-miler outside of the Olympics.

''There are very few marathons that have a great mystique about them,'' says D'Alessandro. ''This one does. It's world-renowned and people will come from all over to see it.''

So the insurance company has signed on through 2008 and has a five-year option after that. Not so for the Olympics, whose recent travails have had D'Alessandro popping his cork since the Salt Lake City payoff scandal broke in December. Until the International Olympic Committee cleaned up its act, D'Alessandro said, Hancock was wiping the five-ringed logo off its annual report, letterhead, and billboards and pulling $20 million in NBC advertising off the table.

And if the IOC's announced cleanup ends up being half-hearted and half-baked, D'Alessandro asserted this week, Hancock won't renew its sponsorship for the 2001-2004 quadrennium.

''It's yet to be seen what they'll do when the media spotlight is off them,'' he says. ''The IOC has a tradition of minimizing what they have to do. I think we'll see some reform, but probably not anywhere near what we need to. And if we don't see enough, we're out.''

Not just out of the IOC, but out of the US Olympic Committee and Salt Lake City, too. ''In the Olympic movement, you're either in or out,'' D'Alessandro says. ''I don't think the public makes a distinction between Salt Lake City's rings and the USOC's rings and the IOC's rings. They see rings.''

You are what you sponsor, he believes. If you sponsor tarnished goods, then the public perceives you as tarnished, too. Tarnish, of course, can be removed over time, which is why Hancock is stepping up to the plate for a whack at the national pastime.

Besides signing on as Major League Baseball's financial services sponsor, the company will underwrite the weeklong Fanfest when the All-Star Game comes to Fenway Park for the first time in 38 years.

''Baseball is a smart move for a company like ours,'' says D'Alessandro. ''Aside from what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did last year, the sport has a lot of advantages. It has 162 games. It's a great spring-summer-fall plug for the schedule. And it's having a resurgence among young people. Baseball is probably one of the more credible sports properties around at the moment, and it's undervalued because of the problems they had in the past.''

D'Alessandro may be up to his ears in demutualization and diversification, his company's current D-words, but he still has a sports marketer's soul in a city that barely recognized the concept until Hancock showed the way.

''For a sports-oriented town, this has not been a sports marketing town,'' D'Alessandro says. ''It's been a town of signage being called sports marketing. If you put up two signs at the FleetCenter and sponsor the third-quarter break, that doesn't make you a sports marketer. It makes you an advertiser.''

Hancock doesn't sponsor the Marathon because it loves potholes and blisters. The company sponsors it because its headquarters is right at the finish line and because the race is a civic heirloom that came at a bargain price.

''We like two-fers,'' says D'Alessandro. ''Things that give us an opportunity to help our community but are also national events.''

That's why Hancock has hooked up with the Mass. Sports Partnership to bring in marquee events such as the 1996 and 2000 Olympic gymnastics trials and the 2001 US figure skating championships.

''Figure skating and gymnastics are the top two Olympic television sports,'' says D'Alessandro. ''We can put them on tour in 30 or 40 cities where we have offices (Hancock is sponsoring the Champions on Ice circuit, which stops at the FleetCenter for two shows Sunday) and we get a chance to have the championships in our hometown.''

That doesn't mean, though, that Hancock will underwrite any sporting event that hits town for a weekend. Though the company will do corporate hospitality and some signage at the Ryder Cup at The Country Club in September, it won't be a sponsor.

Golf doesn't make sense for Hancock. Neither do tennis (sorry, Longwood), rowing (ditto, Head of the Charles) or soccer (what women's World Cup?).

Sponsoring golf, D'Alessandro says, is about bragging rights for CEOs in their country club locker rooms. ''They can beat their chests for the weekend,'' he says, ''and hand out a giant check with Greg Norman looking at them cross-eyed.''

Tennis is pricey, he says, and Boston doesn't get a top field anymore. ''Players can pick and choose now because they have so many tournaments,'' D'Alessandro says. ''Longwood attracts a fair amount of has-beens and never-weres.''

The Head, he says, ''is a little too highbrow, it's not televised, and we can't get a bang out of touring it.''

And don't mention the f-word (as in futbol). ''If I hear one more person say soccer is the coming sport in America ... '' D'Alessandro says. ''The fact that children play soccer, the fact that we have a zillion soccer moms and dads, the fact that we have a lot of soccer being played in high school and college is irrelevant to mass audience.''

Not that marathoning is any marketing slam-dunk, and D'Alessandro concedes that. It makes for dreadful television, it's weak for signage, and there hasn't been a top American contender since the Reagan era. Hancock is no longer involved with the New York (''It's become a fun race'') or Los Angeles events. But Boston, the granddaddy of road races, has been grandfathered. ''We have to be here.'' he says. At least until someone yanks the tower off Clarendon Street and moves it to Des Moines.

This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 04/15/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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