Huntsman's Eric Schulz Remembers the Day $2 Million Blimp Crashed
Editor’s note: Sometimes work can be like a battlefield. It doesn’t take long for most of us to accumulate an eclectic collection of workplace stories about things that didn’t go as expected. We plan to include one such story in each edition of the Huntsman Post under the heading “When Theory Meets Practice – Stories From the Workplace.” If you have such a story to share, please send it to Steve Eaton at firstname.lastname@example.org. It may be hard to top our first true story that happened to our own Eric Schulz, however. Eric is now the co-director of strategic marketing and brand management for the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.
By Eric Schulz
In 2001, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and NBC recruited me to head up the marketing launch for a new professional football league that was to rival the NFL, called the XFL. What did XFL stand for? Many thought it was for “X-treme” football, others “X-rated” football, but the truth is that league founder Vince McMahon just went through the alphabet starting with the letter “A” matching it with “FL” for “Football League,” and he liked the way XFL sounded. No hidden meaning at all. Just “XFL.”
The league launched with eight teams: The LA X-treme, the San Francisco Demons, the Birmingham Bolts, the Orlando Rage, the Memphis Maniax, the Chicago Enforcers, the New York-New Jersey Hitmen, and the Las Vegas Outlaws. Great logos, cool names. Our XFL brand was to play football as it was meant to be played … no sissy rules protecting quarterbacks or receivers. Hard-hitting, in-your-face, raw football, with an in-stadium experience superior to the NFL with big-screens, and rock-concert quality sound with players wearing microphones to let fans in the stands hear every bone-jarring hit, trash talk, and more.
A good idea went bad when the wind took this $2 million marketing blimp on a ride.
Launching a new football league with a major network partner was a lot of fun. NBC spared no expense in allowing us to make wildly entertaining advertising. Part of our marketing strategy was to keep everything top-secret (like logos, uniform designs, etc.), right up to the moment of the first game, so advertising the league prior to our kickoff was a bit tricky. All I had to use was the XFL logo and the football.
In the San Francisco Bay area, one of the marketing tools I developed was an XFL blimp that we would fly over San Francisco 49ers games at Candlestick Park and Oakland Raiders games across the bay. I figured it was a good way to get in front of football fans from those teams in hopes to generate some interest in buying tickets to the Demons.
All was going well in the Bay area, and the blimp was getting great press coverage. The Demons were getting noticed, and ticket sales were number one in the league. Then one Saturday afternoon, I got a phone call that sent shivers down my spine.
The blimp had come loose from its mooring at the Oakland airport and was floating unmanned over the San Francisco Bay. It was headed for the Bay Bridge, and if it were to hit the bridge, it could possibly cause it to collapse and send hundreds of cars and people into the ocean and to their deaths.
As I sat helplessly in my Stamford, Conn. office, CNN cut to a live shot of the blimp. Luckily, as it approached the bridge, it was still climbing and floated harmlessly over it. For more than an hour the blimp floated in the winds and then started descending. It was coming down fast. It turned and took aim at the Oakland shoreline, in the area of Jack London Square, a historic waterfront and one of the top tourist – restaurant areas. It turned again, this time to the north. Crash. Right into a waterfront restaurant. Through the roof. A restaurant and a two million dollar blimp destroyed. Thank goodness, no one was hurt.
As things turned out, it should have been a premonition. Just as quickly as the blimp went from hero to zero, so did the league once we kicked off. The first game on NBC generated the second-highest Saturday night television rating of all time; by week four, it held the record for the lowest network television rating in history. As Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports said in a meeting after the week-four broadcast, “I could have put a test pattern on the screen and drawn a higher rating.” Ouch.