Wednesday, March 9, 2005

"Black Widow" takes marketing cue

By the norms of sports marketing, Jeanette Lee should be squarely behind the eight ball. Female athletes, compared to males, have a harder time getting endorsement deals. And as a pro billiards star, Lee is in a sport that hasn't produced a household name since Minnesota Fats.

But like Rudolph Wanderone Jr., who starting going by Minnesota Fats after Jackie Gleason played a character with that name in the 1961 movie The Hustler, Lee, 33, has a marketable moniker. As the self-styled "Black Widow," she appears poised to become one of the most marketable women in sports.

"When you walk into a hospitality suite and she's there, she's instantly recognizable," says Jeff Urban, sports marketing director for Gatorade, which used Lee for its corporate hospitality at the Super Bowl. "Will she be the next Serena or Mia? No, probably not. But she's really making an impact."

That includes appearing at about 25 corporate outings, at up to $10,000 a pop, so far in 2005 — up from about 20 last year.

Says Kevin Lee, no relation, who staged a sports-themed awards banquet for Cisco Systems featuring Lee: "It's a bit of a stretch to consider what she does as a sport, but she's attractive, well-spoken."

Usually at corporate events, Lee shoots pool. At first, she was nervous. But, she says, not anymore: "They don't need to see the trickiest shot. There are trick shots which I see as the easiest on the planet but that really impress them."

Next week in Las Vegas, Lee stages her first fantasy camp. The three-day "Black Widow Experience" costs campers $2,950. But, Lee says, "At many sports fantasy camps, the celebrity just comes in at the beginning and the end. Here, they're all going to get to play a lot with Jeanette Lee."

John Rousseau, a Phoenix business consultant, will attend to "learn something." And he clearly admires Lee: "With her talent, she could do a TV talk show."

Lee hosted a cable TV pilot for a celebrity billiards series that recently aired on Bravo and is shopping a reality TV billiards series.

She has her own downloadable video game for cell phones, will tour U.S. military bases in Europe this summer and this month gets her own DVD animated feature. That DVD, her agent Tom George says, is meant to lead to spinoff products for the character she plays in it — "a globe-trotting pool hustler by day, super CIA operative/martial arts expert by night."

Don't laugh. The Women's Professional Billiards Association tour includes fewer than 10 events, and first-place prize money can run under $10,000. But Lee, partly through made-for-TV events, manages to draw TV exposure many pro athletes might envy. She appeared for more than 40 hours on ESPN or ESPN2 last year.

And Lee got plenty of close-ups. Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association says at least 40.7 million Americans play billiards, and 63% are males. He says Lee might benefit from being in a familiar sport that might become a fad, like TV poker. And, he says, there's this: "Sex can sell in billiards, just like in other sports."

Bob Dorfman, who analyzes athletes' marketability for the San Francisco-based Pickett Advertising agency, says when "channel-surfing and (I) see her, I stop. I'd never watch pool otherwise. I'm watching her more than marveling at her athletic talent."

Amidst "the paucity of marketable female athletes," Dorfman says, "all the top female endorsers have an element of sex appeal." Lee, he says, is a natural for shampoo ads — "great hair."

The nickname helps, says Bob Williams, a Chicago talent broker who links athletes and marketers. "Having a nickname like Tiger, Shaq or the Black Widow lends itself to advertising and creates an instant identity beyond sports," he says.

Lee got the nickname from a friend a few years after picking up pool at age 18. Lee, who is married with a baby and two stepdaughters and lives in Indianapolis, suggests it helps create a colorful image: "It almost gives me the freedom to be as bad as I want to be."

Michael Hiestand, Sports Business, USA Today
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