October 1, 1997
The Rick Pitino show is under way in Boston.
No, not the one for which the Boston Celtics are paying him $ 6.8 million a year to coach a sorry team back to greatness.
This is a separate act, starring Pitino - the man, the motivator, the product.
On Monday night, Pitino opened at Avalon, compliments of Crown Royal, a division of Seagram Co. of Canada.
An adoring corporate crowd at the packed Lansdowne Street nightclub first watched a video featuring the great man at work. First, there were basketball highlights from the University of Kentucky's championship season two years ago - Pitino's team only made the finals last year - and scenes from last spring's news conference announcing Pitino's new affiliation with the Celtics.
Then, Pitino gave a 45-minute speech and took a fast 15 minutes of questions like "Why did the Celtics trade forward Eric Williams?" from his reverential audience. Afterward, he handed out copies of his book "Success is a Choice."
And, speaking of choice - it's all Pitino's when it comes to giving speeches for companies like Seagram, one of the world's largest distillers.
While coaching at the University of Kentucky, Pitino gave 40 to 50 speeches annually. He says he now expects to give fewer - "probably less than 15" - because of the demands of the NBA schedule.
(He's also involved in a line of Italian foods bearing the Pitino name, but royalties from that venture go to a charitable foundation named after a son who died in infancy.)
As for other business deals, Pitino says he will decide on a case-by-case basis what products he's interested in endorsing. Pitino's contract gives him the right to negotiate his own deals, and he has his own business agent to do them.
The Celtics can't obligate Pitino to promote anything on their behalf, although they have what they call a gentleman's agreement to avoid conflicting sponsorship deals. Meanwhile, they have absolutely no control over his speaking engagements.
"That's a business he had before he came here, and we don't control that in any way, shape or form," explains Rich Pond, the Celtics chief financial officer.
Clearly, when it comes to marketing himself, Pitino is The Man. Everyone wants a piece of him.
The reason is two-fold. He's a celebrity and at the moment, his players are a pack of nobodies.
That's why the Celtics built their ticket sales promotion around Pitino. And that's why Citizens Financial Group, which is expected to take over the Celtics' banking business from Fleet Financial Group, also negotiated for the right to market Pitino along with the team. A deal is expected later this week.
As head of the New England Patriots, Bill Parcells gave Boston a taste of dealing with a professional coach as superstar. But Parcells did limited business when it came to selling himself in the corporate world. And when he did it, it was on behalf of sponsors like Dunkin' Donuts and Lechmere.
Now comes Pitino, a younger, even slicker star. What image will he cultivate?
The jock crowd worships him, just as it used to worship Parcells. The business crowd is enthralled as well. And then, there are the kids. Without a Larry Bird to idolize, there's only a Pitino.
Does he really want to be promoting high-priced whiskey on the night a Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshman died after overdosing on alcohol during a fraternity drinking party?
Of course, it's coincidental that Crown Royal sponsored Pitino during the very week that the deaths of two local young people were definitely linked to alcohol.
And Pitino says when he speaks to salespeople for such a company as Crown Royal, "I'm not speaking and telling them to drink alcohol, I'm telling them how to overachieve in business and in life. It's about self-esteem; it's about being positive rather than negative. It has nothing to do with alcohol; it's about how to get the most out of their abilities."
From a strictly business perspective, it will be interesting to see how he gets the most out of his in Boston.