When is PR not really PR?

My friend Dennis Erokan and his wife Lori have been reading these posts, and I really appreciate his comments.  Dennis published BAM, the music magazine of Northern California (and eventually Southern California) when we really were the music scene and very ambitiously held the Bammies every year which was a really entertaining version of the Grammies, and many great performers showed up.  At the last one I saw even Tim Russert was there.

So Dennis has his blog and website (placemakinggroup.com), and I suggest you check it out if you really want to learn to do this thing properly.  I never did and I think it is too late to start now.

I learned early with Roller Derby that you had to reach a target audience for whatever it is that you are doing.  And what you are sending out had better be of interest to that audience.  We found out early on that it was a waste to send information to the sports editors (on the whole) as they had a holier-than-thou reaction to anything to do with Roller Derby (with the exception of the Twiggy stunt I referred to in the earlier blog).  So we would try and get features on our skaters, especially when going into a city for the first time.   And sometimes we even fudged a bit:  a jammer would find out that he or she was born near Topeka, Kansas, when in reality he came from Saskatchewan (they talk the same)

In the Bay Area, we actually were quite friendly with the sports editors of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune, and they would list our schedules and game results.  In fact, the Oakland Tribune suggested to Frank Deford when he came to Oakland to do a story for Sports Illustrated on the teams of Oakland that he see us, and he did and wrote a long and wonderful piece on Roller Derby for Sports Illustrated (15 pages!) which became the basis of his book, “Five Strides on the Banked Track”.  And later on he suggested to Wayne Valley, the then majority owner of the Oakland Raiders, that they have me head the group of American Football League owners who wanted to by the Oakland Seals National Hockey League team (NHL turned us down, gave it to Charlie Finley, it folded within two years).

We would continually contact the media, offer them tickets for our games even though we knew the staffers or pressmen would come and never ask them for anything.  Each year when we had our Championship Playoffs and sold out the Oakland Coliseum Arena and the Cow Palace (almost 30.000 in total), we would have dinner in each facility and send gold tickets to the media.  They were impressed, and even if they did not give us press then, we know we could get something later.

Press releases were often written in the Herb Michelson style, which I described earlier, so we knew that they had a better chance of getting read.  Sometimes we would put strange headlines on them so they wouldn’t get thrown away. One thing I insisted on; in all press releases would have complete game information, including ticket sale locations, phone numbers, etc.  I had one woman who had handled press for Macy’s who argued with me that ticket information shouldn’t be in a release as they would just delete it.  I told her that was the decision of the publication and not hers, and more often than not when we would get copies of the articles from the bureau we hired (no computers, no google). All the information would be in because the editors were to lazy to take it out and maybe they had more space to fill that day.  (Seltzer principle:  put everything in, let others decide what not to use)

Mere mentions on media are not sufficient PR, although often the PR agencies would try to convince their clients that they are.  I always insisted with Roller Derby or the Ticket Companies, that if we were providing people for interviews or tickets for giveaway, all the information for the game, etc be given on the air.  And it is so necessary to prepare the people who you are sending on the interviews.  They are often so anxious to answer the questions and talk about themselves that they forget why they are there.  I would write down what they must say and they shouldn’t bother to come back if they didn’t.  Ann Calvello and Joan Weston were the worst initially because they were so interesting to the interviewer and they were able to talk about everything (except the game!);  eventually both could do these things in their sleep and really promote.  And we always volunteered skaters for PBS auctions, for daytime shows on local TV, etc.  I never cared what question I was asked, I would say “Yes, Jim and don’t forget our big game this Saturday”……..

When we were in the ticket business (BASS, Ticketmaster) we actually had even more leverage.  We had information we could pass on to the media;  for the more influential ones we would get tickets for them even after the promoters or teams had given them their limit (we paid for them of course).  We never asked them to help us all the time, but when we really needed a favor, we would go to the media and most times they would cooperate.  Of course if they didn’t, extra tickets were harder to come by.  We never abused the relationships as they can get upset with you if you are constantly pestering them and asking for coverage.

What Dennis can really help anyone who wants to learn effective PR is what to send out and to whom.  Often PR people try to flatter executives  in companies who have hired them by writing profiles on them and sending them out.  Frankly who cares?  If it doesn’t sell widgets or doesn’t create goodwill or be interesting enough to be utilized, they are having smoke blown up etc.

I used guerilla marketing before I even knew what it was.  When we would send our advance man out ahead of our tour to try to stir up media coverage (remember, 95% of our ticket sales came as a result of our television program), I would give him a hundred dollars, authorize him for ticket giveaways, interviews, personal appearances, etc, but told him if he spent the hundred dollars at the radio station, he would be fired (well, not literally…..sometimes we could get amazing packages that not only involved interviews, but match races between the disc jockeys which they would promote endlessly).  And we expected our local TV outlet who had our show on to support us.   Often times, we would offer them 10% of our gate if they turned the station over to us and ran an agreed upon amount of television spots; believe me, it worked.  We tried never to turn anything down that would help.

We never spent any money on a radio station anywhere unless they agreed to give us a number of free promotional spots and me.  We were rarely disappointed.

To summarize, write well (and funny when you can), keep media happy,  push them as hard as you can (you can always back off) and the more you are involved and know your business, even if you hire an agency, you determine what goes out and to whom and what you want and don’t blame someone else for lack of results.

I think I have told you almost all my secrets, except the really important ones.

It has to be fun or don’t do it, confessions of a Roller Derby promoter

When my older son was just seven or eight we took  him and a friend to the opening of the Bay Bombers outdoor season at the San Jose Ball Park.   We always had a picnic with the skaters and fans on the outfield grass before the first game.  It is a beautiful little park holding about 3000 and the fans loved to come there.  It was almost always sold out in advance.

After we picnicked on the grass I walked with the children to their seats.  Steven’s friend turned to him and said I thought you said we were going to your father’s work — this is just a good time.

I always thoroughly enjoyed Roller Derby;  not only the game and the skaters and the fans, but the fact it was something I really loved doing.  And because we were outside of the usual sports spectrum we could do things that other “real” sports couldn’t.

Our publicist was a great guy named Herb Michelson.  Herb was moonlighting with us, as he was a columnist for the Oakland Tribune and covered the Giants for AP.  Both he and I would try to figure how we could present things in a different light, and I think the sportswriters appreciated it because the other sports took themselves so seriously.

Example, Charlie Finley moved the Athletics baseball team from Kansas City to Oakland and assumed that he was still in the midwest and not the more sophisticated Bay Area.   He brought Charlie O the mule as mascot.  He had a mechanical rabbit that popped up from behind the plate to give umpires the ball and he did all the promotions that he had done in Kansas City.

The first one was (ugh) Hot Pants night; all the girls who showed up in hot pants would get in free.  We immediately sent out a press release that at our next game at the Coliseum Arena, next door from the baseball stadium, would be no pants night, and all women who showed up without pants would be admitted free, and we would take their word for it.  Charlie was furious.

Then he had farmer’s night (in Oakland?), so of course we had farmers’ daughters night, and so on.

Two of our best attention getters involved two of the other sports teams.  First, the Warriors basketball team ended their season tied for a playoff position with another team.  Because the playoffs started immediately, the league made the decision that the place would be determined by a coin flip…..you can imagine the uproar.  So of course we called a press conference and had the coaches and captains of the six teams in our league on hand.  Herb said that because the NBA had shown the way, the International Roller Derby League was not going through the bother of playing the next season, but we were just going to flip a coin with each team  to decide how they would finish in our league standings.  The press loved it.

We also knew that a minor league hockey team was going to be playing at the Cow Palace in San Francisco the following season, and they had a contest to determine the name of the team; it was to be revealed on Wednesday of the following week.  A box office manager who was a friend of mine (and later married Gloria “Miffy Mifsud”) said the name was going to be the San Francisco Seals, which was the name of the old Pacific Coast League Baseball team.

So of course, that Sunday on our live telecast, I announced because there were so many Roller Derby fans in the Bay Area the Bay Bombers were going to be split into two teams, and the one based in San Francisco would be named the San Francisco Seals.  Of course, all hell broke loose; the hockey owners cried foul (and the Bay Bomber fans were not happy) and we got great press all week, and then of course the following Sunday I said on the telecast that in the interest of great sportsmanship, we were withdrawing our efforts to put a new team in San Francisco, but we still were going ahead with our game scheduled the following weekend at the Cow Palace with the big match race between Joan Weston and Ann Calvello.

We didn’t do anything mean spirited, but it was fun to tweak a few noses.

The real fun for me was creating special events;  when the Oakland City Council announced they didn’t have enough money to have the annual fireworks display on July 4th, we immediately rented the Oakland Stadium (luckily Mr. Finley’s team was out of town) and scheduled a game at 7 PM to be followed by a massive fireworks show.  Ron Gibson, our promotional genius, booked every available drill team, drum and bugle corps, band and other talent (free, of course, but they got to watch the game and the fireworks).  We had tricycle races with such sport stars as Rick Barry and Oakland Raiders players and almost 35,000 fans showed up, the largest crowd in our history to that point.  And we raised over $15,000 for the Providence Hospital Fund, and when handed the check to the Mother Superior she almost fainted…….a lot of money in 1971.

We tried to make our visits to the cities elsewhere in the country major events;  you have to realize that many of these towns had never had live stars from television show up, in addition to their being great athletes on  skates.  Often times Ann Calvello or Joan Weston would be sent out in advance to the major cities along with Gene Moyer, our advance man and referee (everyone had at least two jobs in Roller Derby).  When we played New York and sold out Madison Square Garden, it really opened up major press coverage across the country. (“If you make it there, you can make it everywhere”).

The biggest event ever was in Chicago in 1972.  We had come to a cooperative agreement with the National Skating Derby, and the first time that LA Thunderbirds and the Midwest Pioneers would meet would be at Chicago on September 15, 1972.  I immediately set out to book an arena.  We usually played at the International Amphitheater which was an 8000 seat building at the Stockyard (yes,  the air was fragrant).  However, it was not available because of a livestock show.  The only other arena in town was the Chicago Stadium owned by James Norris and Arthur Wirtz. Mr. Wirtz did not think kindly of the Seltzers as my father had operated the competing Coliseum….and he turned me down cold (although the date was available).

I knew we had the makings of a huge event, but where to go?  I don’t know why but I thought why not White Sox Park (Comiskey Park).  The White Sox were out of town and I checked it out and felt that if we put the track across home plate, approximately 20,000 people would be able to see the game well.  I booked it and we and the National Skating Derby started the promotion on our two different telecasts with Chet Coppock promoting it on the Pioneers telecasts.  We arranged for ticket sales through Ticketron and frankly I was scared to death.  Expenses would be overwhelming if we did not do well.

The day tickets went on sale it was raining, and I did not take that as a good sign.  I also knew that because of the schedules of the two leagues, we could not hold the day following the game as a rain date (stupid, huh).  At any rate our Ticketron rep called me and told me that tickets were flying out and sold almost 20,000 on the first day.  I knew then we were headed for a huge crowd and told our track setup people that we were now going to have to put the track across second base which meant that everyone would be far away, but what the hell.

A week before the event it started raining and it rained every day.  We had sold over 40,000 tickets in advance.  I and the skaters went on various interviews.   I told the columnist from the Chicago Tribune that we had sold 15,000 tickets and that we expected a crowd of 20.000.  He laughed and in his article he said there would never be that many to attend a game in Chicago.

It rained the morning of the 15th, but miraculously at noon it stopped and it cleared up.  The fans started to the Park at 5 PM and completely tied up commuter traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway from downtown Chicago (great picture in the Sun Times the next day).  We opened the box offices at the Park and had to stop selling and turned people away as our attendance hit 50,112.  You can see photos of this and other great Roller Derby history in Keith Coppage’s great book with Baron Wolman’s unbelievable Roller derby photos.(Rolling Stone first chief Photographer).  Go to www.rollerderbycommish.com   See, I am still promoting.  By the way, it started raining that night as they were tearing down the track and rained every day for the next week.  Thank you, Great Godess.

The Pioneers won, the fans went home happy, I picked up a great girlfriend who was in the stands that night, and how could anything be more fun for me than promoting Roller Derby.


In old Roller Derby parlance, “tickets” meant something else entirely different.   Of course you needed a ticket to get in to the event, but to the women of Roller Derby it was a word they used to talk about their breasts.

Ann Calvello used to yell at me from the track that her tickets which were so perfect after she was off between seasons had shrunk when  she was back in shape and skating, and somehow it was my fault.  It was understood between the players that when blocking you avoided the tickets, and the biggest arguments in the dressing room were about accusations that someone had purposely violated this unwritten agreement.

I don’t think we exploited the sexuality of women very much in the sixties and seventies as it would have been demeaning……it was required that when they had on jerseys with a zipper in front that they didn’t expose cleavage; of course Calvello did.  When we did glamor photos for promotion, the players didn’t wear their tights but only their shorts to show they did have legs.

Once Freddy Cohen, our aged advance man, brought a dancer from a topless club in San Francisco whose name was “Topless Twiggy” (catchy, huh?) for a photo shoot.  Joan Weston was on the track for her session when Twiggy, sans jersey, skated on the track…..she definitely was not Twiggy when topless.  Joan was not happy; she was a good catholic girl who never swore and was embarrassed.   Joan left as soon as she could.  The photographer took a few photos of Twiggy skating towards him, and as we were having a major road trip to the Midwest and East and knew the nature of sports editors at that time, sent out a photo with our press release.  The caption on the photo was “this is Topless Twiggy, she is not a skater and will not be on hand when the Bay Bombers meet the Midwest Pioneers on October 16 in Sioux City, etc”.   Amazingly, most editors printed our full press release in their papers, and of course posted the photo on their boards.  I think this would be unimaginable now.   There, I have confessed my indiscretion.

So is this just about breasts?  Of course not.  Many people do not understand the nature of the skaters in today’s Roller Derby.  In the 1480 leagues in 41  countries, with some 100,000 women participating, there is a full body contact sport which requires great conditioning and training and sacrifice.  The leagues are amateur, non profit, and the players give hours of their time and have to pay a monthly fee to belong.  Community service and support of charities are mandated.  Roller Derby becomes the resource.

They are not skating to excite the men watching (always a few exceptions) but these are serious, dedicated athletes who are playing a tough game, yet still have great feelings for all the players they are competing against (“derby love”).  And the fact that some are tattooed and they have strange nom de plumes should not deter you from understanding that the audience is hip and families attend without fear of excess violence or danger.  And many leagues now have junior programs where some women even have their daughters learning to skate.

So get any strange ideas out of your head that they are skating for your sexual excitement and notice that over half the audience is women,  and up to 7000 people are attending their games (“bouts”) and enjoy yourself and keep your raincoat buttoned.