Mad about Madden

The iconic broadcaster and successful pitchman is a favorite of both fans and marketers.

John Madden often says that he can tell how people know him by what they say when they see him. If they yell, "Hey, coach," they remember his 10 years as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. If they yell, "Hey, it's John Madden," they probably know him from the 28 years he's spent broadcasting NFL games, most recently anchoring NBC's "Sunday Night Football" team. And if they holler, "Hey, Madden," chances are they've been playing his still-popular-after-18-years-on-the-market video game, "Madden NFL," which has sold 51 million units since its debut in 1989.

In an entertainment industry where careers are usually defined by their ups and downs, Madden's life has been a jump from peak to peak, including a Super Bowl victory, and -- on Saturday -- receiving the Stan Chambers Award for Extraordinary Achievement from the Associated Press Television-Radio Assn. He's become a ubiquitous figure on television, both in the broadcast booth and in commercials, where he can be seen pitching for Ace Hardware, Outback Steakhouse and Tinactin. Yet, what makes Madden so popular is that he never seems to be pushing himself.

According to his agent of 21 years, Sandy Montag, "John still looks at himself as a coach. He never once thought about all the post-football stuff, whether it be broadcasting, endorsements or appearances. It's not something that he plans. He just goes about, enjoys his life and leaves the rest to us."

Madden himself jokes about how much he's on television, telling a story about a time when he was over at a friend's house, and one of his commercials came on, startling his friend's 5-year-old son. "The kid looked at me, then looked at the television ... and then he went behind the television," Madden says with a laugh.

While Madden might seem so omnipresent that he could be behind our televisions, Montag insists that he's nowhere near as in our faces as he could be. "Nine out of every 10 things, he turns down," Montag says. "From a marketing/endorsement standpoint, the relationships that he has are only long-term. He's been with Ace Hardware for 20 years, Tinactin for over 10 years, Outback Steakhouse for over 10 years, (Electronic Arts) for over 20 years. He's not interested in 'deals'; he's interested in relationships."

When asked to comment about those relationships, the companies he's worked with were quick to respond. Julie Lux, speaking on behalf of Schering-Plough, makers of Tinactin, praises Madden's "toughness." Outback Steakhouse vp sports marketing Bobby Silvest describes how Madden's "leadership position within the broadcasting industry further solidifies our brand."

And Paula Erickson, consumer affairs manager for Ace Hardware, says, "We've done a lot of awareness studies during our relationship with John over the years. Eighty-seven% of consumers can link John Madden and Ace Hardware. The association is so strong that his reach for us is broader than just football fans. He does a great job not only reaching our core demographic, but he's also got the No. 1 video game on the market, so he helps us tap into the customers of tomorrow as well."

Ah, yes, the video game.

Although Ace Hardware enjoys the longest spokesman/product relationship with Madden -- and the second-longest in sports industry, just behind Michael Jordan's affiliation with Nike -- it's his relationship with EA Sports that's done the most to expand Madden's fan base.

According to company lore, Madden had an impact on EA Sports' success with "Madden NFL" from Year 1, when the game was only available for Apple II computers. It was Madden who first suggested that the game be made more football-like by upping the number of players on the field from seven-on-seven to 11-on-11. And later, it was Madden who convinced EA Sports that the company needed to take the time and spend the money to get NFL licensing deals and player licensing deals, so that what comes out each year is as close as possible to what's on football fans' sets on Sunday afternoons.

"If you asked me today what John contributes to the game, it's that authenticity," EA marketing director Chris Erb says. "He held our feet to the fire to make our game as authentic as possible. He still does that to this day." And while Erb confesses that Madden probably never plays the game himself -- "it's a different generation," he chuckles -- he's there during product development, making suggestions. (In fact, NFL players frequently chide Madden for not giving them enough "juice" in the game.)

When asked why so many companies want to be associated with Madden, Montag says, "I think they're looking for credibility. You have someone who's won a Super Bowl, who's won 15 (Sports) Emmy Awards, someone who's been a winner and someone who the American public can relate to. His Q score (a means of measuring the appeal and familiarity of a brand, celebrity, etc.) is as high as it's ever been. People believe him, trust him, and he has a great personality. He's got a rare combination. But it starts with being a winner, which gives you instant credibility."

Madden's current boss, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, agrees. "He's the most approachable person with whom the word 'icon' has ever been associated in the sports field, with the possible exception of Arnold Palmer," Ebersol says. "It doesn't matter who you are, he treats you the same way, which is awfully well."

Through Madden's regular TV appearances, talking for three hours every Sunday during football season, America has gotten to know his quirks, like his fear of flying. Madden reportedly quit coaching -- despite a career winning percentage of .750 -- because he was having panic attacks on planes; when he first started in broadcasting, he took trains everywhere he went, including a train direct from the first Super Bowl he covered, in Detroit in 1982, to New York to host NBC's Saturday Night Live."

Now, Madden travels in a deluxe RV called the Maddencruiser, in which his favorite spots are the bedroom -- "I'm a big nap guy" -- and the front room, where he has two big-screen televisions hooked up to satellite dishes. "When you have people and you're watching games and eating and drinking, that's fun," he says.

On a typical week during football season, Madden rolls that big bus into town on a Thursday night and spends the next two days with the teams at practice, interviewing players and coaches for tidbits he can drop into the broadcast. He says he was lucky in that he broke into the broadcasting business at a time when "they didn't have TV critics, and I did games that I don't know if anyone at the network even watched. You had a chance to break in without having your temperature taken so often. I feel for these guys who come in now, right out of playing or coaching, and they start to evaluate them after one game."

Madden also says he never watched much football on television during his coaching days -- except for the halftime highlights on "Monday Night Football" -- and so he learned on the job, with the help of veteran producers, directors and play-by-play announcers like his longtime, now-retired partner, Pat Summerall.

Yet, according to Ebersol, "John was an instant success because he was the first really great football analyst who came into the booth and spoke a passionate, very humanistic language about a game whose previous popular TV analysts had tried to turn into some version of earth science. More than anybody who's ever been involved in sports television -- I mean anybody -- Madden's the guy you would most like to have on the couch, in your own living room, relating the game to you."

NBC is the fourth network that Madden has worked for in his broadcasting career -- a job-jump attributable to the various networks' losing and reacquiring the rights to the National Football League, not due to any capriciousness on his part. Because he's out on the road so much, Madden says he hasn't noticed much difference between the networks, though he says of Ebersol, "He's the most hands-on top executive I've ever worked with and one of the best. Here's a guy who's the guy, who's the chairman ... and he never gets tired. He was there every game this season. They don't make 'em like that. They never made 'em like that."

Actually, Ebersol's relationship with Madden over the past year mirrors America's relationship with him. The two have been friends since Ebersol asked him to host that "SNL" episode back in '82, and after wooing Madden to NBC to work the network's Sunday night package, Ebersol took to the road with him for five months, and he waxes rhapsodic about it now: "Sitting up near the front of the bus, John sitting on his bench seat and me on the couch with a couple of people, steaming down the highway talking about everything under the sun while surrounded by two enormous television screens with either the NFL Network or ESPN News on, during a weekday afternoon. My wife said I ran away and fell in love with John Madden all over again."

After the last NBC broadcast of the season, Ebersol said his goodbyes, and then an hour later, while he was packing his car, Ebersol saw Madden across the parking lot and went back up to him, gave him one last big hug and thanked him. "I told him I couldn't think of any period in the last 30 years of my professional life that I'd enjoyed more than living with him those last five months," Ebersol says. "As much fun as football is, it's really tied up with being able to be around John Madden for an extended period of time."

Erb sums the matter up: "The name 'John Madden' means different things to different people, but the one common thread is that everybody loves John. They love him for different reasons, but they love him the same. How do you not love John?"