NCAA tournament ushers in marketer madness

As the Cinderella wannabes take on top seeds in the NCAA men's basketball tournament this week, athletic-shoe brand Pony will be attempting its own upset of giants.

The brand from the past will roll out about 50 new Pony shoes in stores such as Foot Locker and Champs as March Madness gets underway on Thursday.

The brand, born in Brooklyn in 1972, aims to get back on shoe fans' radar less than a year after a buyout backed by equity investors Infinity Associates and Symphony Holdings. Infinity previously revived Converse before selling the brand to Nike in 2003.

It was a fast break for the product team. It typically takes 18 months to get a sports shoe from drawing board to store shelves.

"We put together our design direction, went over it with (CEO Kevin Wulff), presented it to sales, and it's been the hurry-up offense ever since," says Kyle Pulli, a 10-year Adidas designer who worked on signature shoes for NBA stars Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady. Pulli joined Pony in May, shortly after Wulff became CEO.

The brand, with an ad budget of less than $5 million, will not be one of 125 advertisers spending big bucks for ads in 63 top tournament games aired by CBS on TV and its Web outlet. Its ads will be in game coverage on ESPN and Fox Sports networks and elsewhere on cable. The message: Back in the Game.

Marketing will try to make up in attitude what it lacks in dollars to challenge megabrands. One ad spoofs a Nike ad with music and fancy passes, until a Pony shoe rather than a basketball is passed to a surprised player. Then gobs of Pony shoes fall on him.

"When you're small, you need to create marketing and advertising that makes your head snap. We're authentic and individual and poke a little bit of fun to show that we're competing with the big boys again," says Wulff, who ran various Nike units for eight years.

Pony, with its Chevron stripe logo, was at the top of its game as a sports-cleats mainstay and 1980s basketball shoe phenomenon. A-list endorsers then included Muhammad Ali, Dan Marino, Reggie Jackson and Brazilian soccer great Pelé.

On Tuesday, Pony will announce a three-year endorsement deal with its first big name since the '80s: New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss.

Pony prices will average $50 to $75 but top $100 for special editions. Its three lines: performance, everyday sports and vintage fashion wear.

"We symbolize the average person looking for good shoes," says Pulli. "We are a no-gimmick company that's trying to build footwear products."

More March Madness marketing:

•Sheraton. The 190-property hotel chain will have ads during CBS games and on NCAA and CBS websites to drive people to www.sheratonwave.com.

Visitors can upload videos of themselves in school colors doing a "wave" cheer. A random entry will win tickets to next year's Final Four.

Sheraton also will shoot individuals doing the wave at 25 colleges and post that video this week. People can search for favorite teams and use the clips to create waves to e-mail friends. A scoreboard tallies the waves for each school.

•AT&T. Wireless customers can get scores, trivia and exclusive video highlights on their phones through its Media Net service. They also can participate, via text message, in picking the NCAA's player of the year — the AT&T Naismith Trophy — from the four finalists named by the Naismith Trophy board of selectors (coaches, journalists and administrators). Customer votes will count for 25% in the process.

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