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Outside the Lines:
Body Billboards


Here's the transcript from Show 101 of weekly Outside The Lines - Body Billboards

SUN., MARCH 3, 2002
Host: Bob Ley, ESPN.
Guests: Joe Lear, agent for boxer Bernard Hopkins; Luther Mack, chairman of Nevada Athletic Commission; Bill Strickland, NBA agent.

Bob Ley, ESPN host - How about this, John, athletes wearing tattoos for profit. It is happening right now. Should they have the right to do it?

It's our topic, Outside The Lines.

Announcer - March 3, 2002.

Ley - Athletes' tattoos usually are close to the heart, born of personal expression.

But what if an athlete was paid by a shoe company or an airline or any business to sport a tattoo while he plays?

Incredible? It's already happening.

Bernard Hopkins, Boxer - I'm the first, I guess I can say, the laboratory rabbit.

Ley - What began as a crude experiment in boxing is now seen nationally.

Ross Greenburg, President, HBO Sports - It might have looked a little cheesy, but when you can put six figures into your pocket, you'll accept cheesy.

Ley - The tattoos are temporary, the money is real, and the trend could cross over into major sports.

Terron Millet, Boxer - Any sport that allows it, once they get a taste of it, a lot of them are going to start jumping on the band wagon.

Ley - Today, on Outside The Lines, do athletes have the right to become body billboards?

Announcer - Outside The Lines is presented by State Farm Insurance.

Ley - Here's a thought some might find disturbing - the sport of boxing is leading the way as a visionary on an issue wrapped in the first amendment and underscored by the pioneering spirit of venture capitalism, or not.

You might be one of those people who feel assaulted by ambush advertising, those computer generated ads behind home plate, for example, on baseball telecasts, or the omnipresent logos for sneaker companies.

If that's the case, then what we're going to tell you this morning just might put you over the edge. But at a time when it's an increasing imperative to ring the very last dollar out of any opportunity in sports, the idea of boxers selling the advertising space on their backs does make sense to the bottom-line.

And it seems certain this practice is about to expand outside boxing's unique world to other sports, because athletes know the camera is watching, and that means cash.

The exposure Brandy Chastain spontaneously gave to sports bras resulted in a healthy increase for Nike's retail sales.

When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban played manager for a day at a Dairy Queen, the stunt produced by one estimate $2 million in free publicity for the ice cream chain.

But there's a new and most bizarre contender for the sports commercialism crown. Bernard Hopkins may resemble a professional wrestler, but he's actually the undisputed middleweight boxing champion of the world. And he wants more. He yearns to be...

Hopkins - I want to be the stockcar racing human body type of thing.

Ley - The parallels are striking. NASCAR has pit crews, boxing, corner men. Stock cars are effective billboards, and so now are the naked backs of boxers.

Greenburg - None of us ever saw this coming, frankly, and yet, you know, it's here and it has to be accepted, at least in boxing.

Ley - There is limited ad space in the spartan ring beyond the mat and the corners. The boxers themselves had been afterthoughts.

Joe Lear, sports agent - For a year I tried to sell the trunks of Bernard Hopkins, and everybody said, who is Bernard Hopkins? No.

Ley - That was the case last September, as Hopkins, a huge underdog, prepared for the biggest fight of his life against Felix Trinidad.

Traditional endorsement deals were nonexistent. Hopkins decided to gamble his reputation with an on-line casino,

Eric Amgar, - We wanted this to be a shock. We wanted -- as a company, we really wanted to profit from the shock value.

Hopkins - They're going to be shocked when they see this.

Ley - The shock is revealed in this home video, on the eve of the fight. Not only is the casino name on Bernard Hopkins' trunks, but literally on his trunk.

Lear - Although it was a good idea to do the tattoo, if Bernard lost that fight, it would have been the dumbest idea in sports.

Hopkins - Oh, Bernard, (Unintelligible). Oh, he got (Unintelligible). As big as day, you can't miss it. You can't squint your eyes and figure out what it says, because it's that big.

Greenburg - It looked tacky and cheap.

Ley - It was also a surprise to HBO. Hopkins' camp kept the tattoo a secret from the network.

Lear - You know how much a commercial costs on HBO? Nothing, because they don't let you have commercials. But we're going to do one.

Announcer - You may notice that there is some printing on the back of Bernard Hopkins, who rented it out for about $100,000 to a dot-com gambling service.

Hopkins - If they didn't know Golden Palace, they knew them after September 29th.

Announcer - This fight is over, he knocked out Trinidad.

Ley - Hopkins' gamble turned into a glorious victory, and it was the birth of a notion.

Greenburg - Every fight that we've aired since, there seems to be a series of these fighters popping up with a logo on their backs.

Lear - They thought it was tacky. I'm going to be quite honest with you. It's tacky. It works, but it's tacky. And what we've decided to do with Golden Palace was to make it a little more artistic.

Ley - For that, he hired Nicole Baum, a henna artist.

Nicole Baum, Henna artist - I was doing henna in a tent in a crater on an Indian reservation for Cirque de Soleil, outside of Las Vegas.

Ley - Henna is an ancient Eastern body art that temporarily stains the skin. Balm is busy now with Joe Lear's growing roster of tattoo-willing fighters. Their paydays from the on-line casino range from over $200,000 for Hopkins, to roughly $25,000 for welter-weight Terron Millet.

Millet - Boxing is not only, I guess, to see whose the toughest, but to make money. And at this point, I'm trying to make some money.

Ley - This night, it was money earned in blood. But before the beating, Lear warned his fighter of a different knock out.

Lear - I think it's a bigger punch in the face when they take stuff like this away from you.

Ley - They are the Nevada Athletic Commission.

Despite pleas from Lear...

Lear - I'm here today representing 26 professional boxers.

Ley - The commission two weeks ago voted unanimously to ban temporary tattoos on boxers in Nevada.

Luther Mack, Nevada Athletic Commission - This is just my personal opinion...

Lear - Sure.

Mack - But I think there should be a better way to advertise than on somebody's back.

Ley - Last week, lawyers for Golden Palace Casino won a state court ruling as a judge said the athletic commission's tattoo band violated the first amendment.

The ruling put a smile on the face of boxer Bones Adams, and a tattoo on his back, something even HBO noted.

Announcer - They gave him approval, as a free speech right. He gets $50,000.

Ley - Next week, the on-line casino hopes to cement its legal victory by asking for a permanent injunction in favor of tattoos in Nevada.

Meantime, the sun shines upon the bare but available for a price back of the middle-weight champion.

Hopkins - It's like freedom of speech is like something that no one can tell me what I can do to my own body. This is my own domain. This is my own kingdom.

So, I'm proud of it, and, you know, if somebody's watching, bring it on, and the check too, so we can talk about it.

Ley - Where is this rush to tattoo capitalism heading?

Greenburg - I would not be surprised if tattoos start popping up elsewhere.

I think what you might see is that this might pop up in the NBA finals.

Ley - A body ad tattoo almost popped up on NBA all-star Rasheed Wallace last year. He considered an offer of $15,000 to sport a commercial tattoo during the televised game.

Wallace declined. Had he gone forward, he would have been ejected from the game.

Russ Granik, NBA - Our collective bargaining agreement prohibits players from advertising any products, either on their body or their uniform, other than sneakers, and so, you know, our view is that's not something that is permissible in an NBA game.

Ley - But in the untamed wilderness of boxing and other loosely governed sports, it is open season for commercial tattoos.

Lear - Anywhere that I consider the wild, wild west, such as boxing, that doesn't have a team owner, that doesn't have a player's association, and doesn't have a league administering this, I'm jumping right in there. Because these guys, that are giving me the money to pay these boxers, want in. And whether it's tennis, horseracing, jai alai, if it's on TV, it may be tattooed.

Ley - Joining us to consider body billboards, Bill Strickland. He is a long-standing sports agent, and among his clients, Rasheed Wallace, who nearly wore a commercial tattoo. Bill Strickland joins us from Washington, D.C.

Joe Lear is the agent for middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins. He may well be the godfather of the body billboard phenomenon and he is joining us this morning from Boca Raton, Florida.

And Luther Mack is chairman of the Nevada Athletic Commission, one of the five commissioners, those commissioners voting as a group prohibiting commercial tattoos. Luther Mack is in Reno.

Luther, good morning. Let me begin with you. It's Bernard Hopkins' body. He said it very eloquently. Why shouldn't he be able to do what he wants to do with his own body?

Mack - I think we're trying to raise the bar on boxing, and to me it looks kind of tacky. And we think it discredits boxing in the state of Nevada.

We think there is a better way to advertise, rather than something temporary on the back of a boxer.

Ley - You're not getting any argument on tackiness from Joe Lear. In our own story, he admitted it's tacky, but legally, does he have a right to do it?

Mack - Well, you know, temporarily, we got an order to go ahead and allow Bones Adams to put it on his back, but we go before a judge next week, I think the 5th of March, to reconsider this. And we think there is a good chance of winning.

Ley - Joe, you've got that Cheshire cat grin. You've got the first amendment. But you've got a lot of money here at stake.

Lear - I sure do. Hey, listen, they say it's bad for boxing, and I'm not going to argue with it. It could be bad for boxing in their opinion. But you can't argue that it's great for boxers.

It's the best thing that's happened to boxers in the last two years, since the Ali bill, which Bernard Hopkins also played a major role in.

And when we do something like this and you say it's bad for boxing, remember, none of us would have jobs if those guys weren't fighting each other. Some of us make more than them. Let them make the money. When they go and fight, we make money. Let them capitalize. Because if not, then maybe the Nevada State Athletic Commission is bad for boxing.

Mack - What about the situation, what happened years ago, when Ali, Foreman, Frazier, all those professionals, did not have the opportunity to put this on their back for advertising?

Lear - I feel bad, because could you imagine? I've seen the "Thrilla in Manila" 50 times. I'm only 30. I wasn't around then. If they had a tattoo advertisement on there, it would be priceless. That would be one of the best opportunities ever for corporate America to get their names out there.

But this is not -- when we talk about boxing, this isn't to bet De La Hoya another quarter million. There's a trickle down effect. In Bernard Hopkins' moment of greatness, he wore the tattoo with pride, respect and dignity. From that...

Ley - Yeah, he did, but it's an online casino. So let me ask the question of Luther Mack, and certainly casinos proliferate in Nevada. Your state is founded on the process of separating people from their money. But what if it wasn't an online casino? What if it was something like a shoe company or an airline, Luther? Would that have gone down differently?

Mack - Well, yeah. I think that the fact -- what about utilizing something alternative to the fact is that the robe, when the boxer comes in the ring, or the shoes or the trunks? I mean, he's in the ring for two or three minutes before the fight starts. That's one way of advertising, and I think that's a great way to do that type of business.

Ley - Well, Bill Strickland, let me bring you in, because you nearly faced this situation -- you did face it last year. How close did your client, Rasheed Wallace, come to actually wearing a tattoo?

Bill Strickland, sports agent - Well, we just considered it when proposed.

I didn't get to see the opening piece. I assume that was Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner.

Ley - Yes it was, it was Russ.

Strickland - My reading and from consorting with the union, I was reading the collective bargaining agreement. I believe we have a different view of what the agreement covers in terms of these tattoos, but we considered it. The union said and the (Unintelligible) said there was nothing precedented in the collective bargaining agreement that would prohibit him from doing that.

But Rasheed made a unilateral decision, irrespective of the spin that the NBA put out, and it's a preemptive spin, I assure you, but Rasheed decided on his own that he did not want to decorate his body with commercial tattoos, because it would detract from the statements contained within his current body art.

Ley - Who was the offer from?

Strickland - It was from a candy company. And I daresay, Bob, had we gone ahead and put the tattoo on his body, the league would have had a tremendous time trying to police it.

And, of course, on the other hand, the advertiser who proposed it had made a preliminary judgment as to whether or not it was economically viable and a functional utility that they were seeking.

But irrespective of that, I would like to see the players have the right to make the choice to wear tattoos if they choose. But obviously, we're going to have to deal with some free speech issues, much like boxing is right now.

Ley - Well, also, there is a lot of money at stake. There is a picture in the current Sports Illustrated from that Bones Adams (Unintelligible) fight, and by the account of one sports marketer, that one picture, which is on a full page story, and the picture takes up a goodly portion of the page, of Bones Adams wearing that tattoo, is worth a quarter million dollars.

Luther, it's tough to argue with that kind of money, I mean, that kind of exposure.

Mack - Well, I guess we come down that everything is about money, but what about boxing itself? What about something that looks neat, like it did years ago? What about the fact that there is today, is everything about money? Or is pride, or something that we're trying to build, and image of boxing?

I think we've got to go back to what happened years ago, when two fighters entered a ring in nice clean shorts and their tennis shoes, and their robes. I know Ali wore a nice robe and had advertising on the back.

Can't we go back to that and still make money?

Strickland - Well, if I can interject something. That's all grand and noble, about what it used to be. But there was a time when black players could not play on the field or play on the courts. There was a time when cornrows and the braids that you see present today were not present.

I mean, times change. Economics change. And a lot of what is happening in sports today is driven purely by dollars.

Ley - But, Bill, isn't there a distinction between personal expression, in putting a tattoo on there permanently, and taking money for it?

Strickland - I don't believe so. I mean, if a player chooses to wear something on his body, much like Bernard has stated, then that should be his personal choice.

You know, and usually when we have an infringement on a constitutionally guaranteed right, it goes to, you know, some kind of public policy or concern, safety, health, welfare.

This does not involve any of that, and if a player chooses to wear that tattoo, I think he should have the right to do that. And it is ultimately, at its base and core, a free speech issue.

Ley - OK. We'll have more form our guests in just a moment.

Where is this phenomenon of commercial tattoos heading? Sports marketer Bob Williams says nobody really knows if this is really only the beginning.

Bob Williams, sports marketer - There are companies out there who would like to exploit the tattoo opportunity here. It's a limited number of companies, because it is a new technology. It is untested. Advertisers like to have a comfort level in terms of how consumers are going to react to something like this. So, we're in the embryonic stage, and it's very difficult for advertisers on a wide scale to embrace this concept.

Ley - Bernard Hopkins has already leased his back for advertising, but he's got plenty of other space available.

Unidentified Male - Your back?

Hopkins - Yes.

Unidentified Male - Your forehead?

Hopkins - Yes.

Unidentified Male - Your cheeks?

Hopkins - Yes.

Unidentified Male - Your calves?

Hopkins - Yes, and thighs.

Unidentified Male - Your arms?

Hopkins - Yes.

Unidentified Male - Your shoes?

Hopkins - Yes, if they can fit.

Announcer - Outside The Lines is presented by State Farm Insurance. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

Sam Walker, "Wall Street Journal" - Larry Hughes and the Golden Fin Warriors. When he was a kid, he put a (Unintelligible) tattoo on his arm. And then he made it into the NBA, and he signed a deal with them. So, technically, he's wearing an advertising for that company, even though it came before the endorsement deal.

Ley - It's not just boxing. Arena football cheerleaders in Nebraska have sported temporary tattoos on their mid-drift for a local beauty salon.

And we are back with Bill Strickland and Joe Lear and Luther Mack to talk about body billboards.

OK, Joe, take the lid off some secrets. Whom else have you approached about this, outside boxing?

Lear - You might see horse racing, tennis, there's a variety.

Eric Amgar from Golden Palace, and I, have been pretty passionate about this. I wish he was on the program.

As far as the boxers, everybody loves it. When I started to speak to some jockeys, their finding ways to put it on their boots, to stamp the horse. You never know where it's going to go.

Ley - Tennis, you think, is an opportunity?

Lear - Tennis, I think, is a very large opportunity. I can't give any names, but I can tell you that they've got a lot of room on their arms.

Ley - Oh sure you can. Come on, come on. Give us some names.

Lear - I've forgotten them.

Ley - All right.

Bill, you've worked the pro circuit. You know a little bit about the tennis world. Will it fly there?

Strickland - I don't know if the culture of tennis right now is ready for it. But again, going forward, we could see that change. But certainly, anywhere where you have a lot of exposed skin, such as in boxing, swimming, beach volleyball, I think those are viable alternatives and sports where you may see it pop up.

Interestingly, in basketball, though, I think, again, the functional utility is somewhat limited because you have fast moving players, limited body space, players being substituted in and out, plus advertisers who are trying to do ambush advertising have viable alternatives to engage the services of an athlete for their endorsement.

So I don't know if it will become an issue in the NBA.

Ley - Well, hold on, though, Bill. If somebody takes it in for a dunk, though, and has a nice commercial tattoo on their left upper arm, what's to stop them from walking right over to the camera and pointing right at it and saying hi, mom, here it is?

Strickland - Well, the league would stop it. I mean, that's one of the ways, rather than prohibiting it, that's one of the ways that the league would be able to control it.

In part, because they negotiate the television contracts. They certainly influence how the games are broadcast, and what's preventing them from going to a director and saying don't show those commercial tattoos.

Ley - Joe, would one of your boxers string along an opponent, somebody he's clearly in charge of in the ring, just to get a few more minutes of HBO exposure?

Lear - No. Never. My guys get paid not for winning or losing, for wearing it. And at the end, when they thank their sponsors and act professionally, that's when they get their money. It has nothing to do with the amount of time. That's a risk that they have to take.

But as we're talking about the future, 99 percent of the boxers out there may have one shot to be on TV. They're getting five figure deals now. They're getting out into the public. That might get them a job. So the future of tattoos is only good for the boxers. I don't know about boxing, but you may have millions of dollars going to guys who couldn't get a nickel before. Don't stop it from happening.

Strickland - And, Bob, that's another reason why in the NBA I am anticipating that it won't become much of an issue, because the kind of base compensation paid to the players there, even though the one advertising in "SI" was attributed to be about 1/4 of a million dollars, players are receiving that kind of money and more for merely wearing shoes.

So, again, the economics of it has to figure in. And the advertiser is going to have to judge whether or not spending the money for that chance, limited exposure, is worth it.

Ley - Let's go around the horn and get your final thoughts.

Luther, a year from now, will this still be an issue? Do you think you will prevail in appellate court, or are we still going to be dealing with this and a spreading issue in a year?

Mack - I think we're going to prevail, next week, March 5th. I think eventually you're going to have a national boxing commission to solve all these issues and make it consistent throughout the United States.

I just think that we have to look at the fact of trying to make sports really professional and do the best job, so our young kids can see what it's all about.

So I foresee that we're going to win this, and I foresee that boxers are going to make money other ways.

Ley - Bill, in a sentence, where will we be a year from now on this issue?

Strickland - Where we are now, a little bit more down the road. I think that Joe and his people will prevail. Again, ultimately, at its core, I view it as a free speech issue.

Ley - OK, Bill.

How happy will you be, Joe, in a year from now? How much happier, I should say?

Lear - I'll be ecstatic, and I work for Bernard Hopkins, who has been fighting these guys for ten years, and they've been telling him no change, no change.

Ley - These guys being the boxing establishment?

Lear - Exactly. And I can't work for someone like that and not fight these guys.

Ley - Guys, thank you all very much.

Thanks to Joe Lear, Luther Mack, and to Bill Strickland.

Next, a graduation (Unintelligible), Nolan Richardson and an Outside The Lines special.

Nolan Richardson, Arkansas head coach - I think the responsibility doesn't necessarily lie all on the coach. Are you telling me that you can send me your kid who don't want to go to school, but you brought him up here, that it's my responsibility to make him like it when you didn't?

Ley - "Zero Percent - College Basketball's Graduation Crisis." If you missed it, set your VCRs Tuesday morning, 3 a.m. Eastern, that's midnight Pacific, Monday night, Outside The Lines.

Check out our streaming video and transcripts of all our Sunday morning Outside The Lines shows. Log on to, the keyword - OTLWEEKLY. And there's our e-mail address,

Announcer - Outside The Lines is presented by State Farm Insurance. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

Announcer - Outside The Lines is a presentation of ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports. For more, log on to

Ley - And if you missed any portion of our program this morning, we'll be re-airing at 10:30 a.m. Pacific time over on ESPN2.

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 Outside The Lines
ESPN's Bob Ley examines the future of "Body Billboards."
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