The Greatest Publicity Stunts in Sports History
Tiger's Intercontinental Drive
On Nov. 5 Tiger Woods arrived by helicopter to Istanbul, Turkey's Bosporus Bridge for a remarkable PR stunt: a drive (the kind with a club, not a car) from Europe to Asia to promote the Turkish Airlines Open, where Woods competed (thanks to a hefty appearance fee). Sure, the Bosporus is a serious water hazard, but I'd have been more worried about the ongoing stream of traffic just to Tiger's right.
Anchors Aweigh for Michigan State-North Carolina
This one is less a craven publicity stunt than a unique way to honor our armed forces. Two titans of college basketball met on the deck of a titanic aircraft carrier for the Carrier Classic, held aboard the USS Carl Vinson between Michigan State and North Carolina on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2011. With President Barack Obama in attendance, the Tar Heels beat the Spartans 67-55 in front of more than 8,000 fans, including many service men and women as well as members of Obama's family. The court, lights and temporary seating were placed directly on the flight deck. Here's the game in its entirety.
Battle of the Sexes
Forty years later, it's still a candidate for the GOAT when it comes to sports-related publicity stunts: A 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, who had been the world's No. 1 player in the late 1940s, challenged elite women's player Billy Jean King to a prime-time match in Houston's Astrodome in front of 30,472 fans and a worldwide television audience of 90 million. Riggs arrived to the match carried on a litter, Roman emperor-style, in a masterful display of PR savvy, but the actual tennis part didn't go so well for the aging, out of shape Riggs, who lost to King, 6-4. 6-3, 6-3. Adding to the event's legend are recent allegations that Riggs threw the match to settle gambling debts.
The ratings-starved NHL came up with a brilliant way to market itself — the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, an outdoor spectacle that helps fill the void left by college football's partial abandonment of New Year's Day. The gimmick has resulted in some unforgettable images, as hockey's elite battle amid snow showers in front of bundled fans in classic venues. This is one thing the NHL and Gary Bettman have gotten right. Here's the inaugural Winter Classic between the Penguins and Sabres in Ralph Wilson Stadium on Jan. 1, 2008.
It's been widely derided as a cheap stunt that made a circus out of LeBron James' free agency decision and a clown out of the hapless host, Jim Gray. But James' made-for-TV announcement that he was "taking his talents to South Beach" was a ratings winner and has become a cultural touchstone, not to mention revealing Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's true colors. "If I had to go back on it, I probably would do it a little bit different,” James said later. “But I’m happy with my decision."
Disco Demolition Night
White Sox owner Bill Veeck was a master promoter and showman who once said, "You can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence." Veeck's losers outdid themselves with this 1979 stunt. A local DJ promoted an anti-disco event where people could bring their records and have them destroyed between games of a doubleheader on July 12. The event went off as planned, sort of, as a giant box of records was blown up, tearing a hole in the outfield grass. What wasn't planned was the flood of up to 7,000 spectators onto the playing surface. The resulting riot led to 39 arrests, possibly dozens of injuries and a forfeit of the nightcap. Plus an immortal piece of baseball lore.
Speaking of Bill Veeck, he pulled off perhaps the greatest PR stunt in baseball history as owner of the St. Louis Browns when he sent little person Eddie Gaedel, who stood 3 feet, 7 inches, to the plate for an at-bat leading off the bottom of the first inning against the Tigers. Wearing jersey number 1/8, Gaedel crouched with the bat on his shoulder for four straight balls and was promptly replaced by a pinch-runner. Gaedel finished his pro baseball career with one plate appearance, an on-base percentage of 1.000, and $100 in earnings. You can look up his stats on Baseball-Reference.com. Here's a re-creation of the event.
The Battle at Bristol
This one hasn't happened yet, but anticipation is already building for the 2016 Tennessee-Virginia Tech game at Bristol Motor Speedway. The stunt location will draw the largest crowd in college football history. The only thing better would be a race going on simultaneously.
Tennis on Top of the World
This one makes me dizzy just watching. Roger Federer played some exhibition tennis atop the Burj-al-Arab Hotel in Dubai on a makeshift court atop a helipad. The scariest part? No fence. You'll notice that the guys weren't exactly going at full speed. Trying to run down a topspin lob would have led to certain death.
Ricky Williams "Marries" Iron Mike
The trade didn't work out, but the stunt remains embedded in our consciousness: Saints coach Mike Ditka traded his entire 1999 draft (as well as a couple picks the following year) to get Texas Heisman Trophy running back Ricky Williams. The trade was so outrageous that ESPN The Magazine sprung into action with a genius bit of marketing, and Iron Mike and Ricky were happy to play along. The result is an immortal image that has long outlived both the Ditka regime in New Orleans and Williams' NFL career (although not his love for the hippie lettuce).