Fila USA takes a shot at signing another rising basketball star


Fila USA is one of two apparent finalists in a fierce competition among sneaker companies for the endorsement of University of North Carolina basketball star Jerry Stackhouse.

Fila USA, the largest division of the Italian sneaker and sportswear company, is competing with industry leader Nike Inc. and competitors such as Reebok International Ltd. and Converse Inc. to land Mr. Stackhouse, who was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the third pick of the National Basketball Association draft in June.

"It's pretty clear-cut that it's going to be Fila or Nike, from what I've heard," said Andrew Gaffney, editor of Sporting Goods Business, a New York-based industry publication.

Hunt Valley-based Fila hopes that landing the UNC star will help it build on last year's successful ad campaign featuring Detroit Pistons and Dream Team III forward Grant Hill.

Fila has stepped up its pursuit of Mr. Stackhouse since losing out on University of Maryland star Joe Smith, who signed with Nike shortly after the NBA draft. Howe Burch, Fila advertising vice president, said he expects Mr. Stackhouse's camp to make a decision within two weeks; a Nike spokesman said the Oregon company expects to know one way or another within a month.

"Among the rookies in this current class, he definitely is a player that has a tremendous amount of potential to do very well on and off the court," Nike public relations manager Tom Feuer said. "He was on the Sports Illustrated cover as [college] player of the year; that brought a lot of attention to him. He has a spectacular way of playing basketball, a la Michael Jordan. He played in a highly visible program at North Carolina, and he seems to be a very solid guy, a very good guy."

Mr. Burch said that Fila sees his appeal in much the same way. It hopes to use Mr. Stackhouse to build on a nice-guy image that it began with Mr. Hill and Dallas Mavericks forward Jamal Mashburn.

"He shares a lot of the same characteristics" as Mr. Hill, Mr. Burch said. "He was Atlantic Coast Conference, . . . was drafted number three in the draft, and does his talking on the court."

The point of the Hill campaign has been to broaden the appeal of its product among suburban buyers, because Fila has traditionally been very strong in inner-city markets and much weaker in the suburbs.

The other big issue for Fila has been building a reputation for quality and performance for a shoe traditionally seen as a fashion leader that was too heavy and lacking the features for serious athletic use.

Like Mr. Hill, whose father was an All-Pro football player and whose mother is a Washington consultant, Mr. Stackhouse's public profile includes a reputation for being close to his large family. His half-brother, Tony Dawson, plays for the Boston Celtics.

Mr. Hill and Mr. Stackhouse are also both top young players who have been hyped as the next Mr. Jordan, also a North Carolina product.

Neither Nike, Fila nor Reebok would release the terms they have offered Mr. Stackhouse. His agent, Lee Fentress, did not return calls. Mr. Gaffney said that since Nike is about eight times bigger than Fila, the industry takes it as a given that Nike is offering the most money up front. Nike also could benefit from being the leading shoe among NBA players.

Fila is fighting back with greater exposure and possibly with more entrepreneurial terms than Nike; the local company's 1994 deal with Mr. Hill is believed to be based in large part on sales of Mr. Hill's signature shoe and other products. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed.

"We promised [Mr. Stackhouse] a starring role, not a supporting role," Mr. Burch said, just as Fila did last year when it wooed Mr. Hill.

Fila's selling point in the endorsement wars has been that athletes might get lost in the crowd of celebrity endorsers at Nike, which is headlined by Chicago Bulls superstar Mr. Jordan and Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley.

By contrast, Mr. Hill immediately had an $87-a-pair basketball shoe named for him at Fila. The Hill sold out at key retailers within a week, in a performance Mr. Burch has said exceeded any new basketball shoe introduction since the original Air Jordan in 1984. The shoe helped Fila boost U.S. sales to a level expected to exceed $500 million this year, compared with less than $60 million in 1990. A new Hill shoe is on tap for fall.

Mr. Hill is also one of the promotional anchors of Fila's new Fila Sport casual-wear line, designed to branch the company beyond the athletic gear business and into clothing markets where it will compete with designers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and Ralph Lauren.

Fila's sales growth is also moving to its bottom line. U.S. sales have more than quintupled in five years; on Thursday, the Italian parent company announced a 77 percent gain in second-quarter profits over the same months of 1994, led by a 55 percent sales gain.

Nike's Mr. Feuer would not commit the company to giving Mr. Stackhouse an early shot at a signature shoe. He said it was too early to tell whether the young forward would ultimately break out of Nike's large group of endorsers to have a high individual marketing profile.

"There are very few signature shoes in this business, as you know," Mr. Feuer said. "I don't think it's an exact science. It has to do with market size, personality, how much the public and fans respond to an athlete."

Mr. Gaffney said Mr. Stackhouse's choice of a shoe company could turn on whether the young player wants to turn himself into a broad-based media phenomenon like Mr. Jordan or Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal. One possible hint: Mr. Stackhouse's listing in North Carolina basketball's 1994-1995 media guide said his goal is to run an international clothing company.

"If you want to get a soft drink deal or a fast-food deal, you probably like the Fila deal more" because of the exposure, Mr. Gaffney said. Nike's pitch, by contrast, is "we're the leading company and here's a million dollars."

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