Photo by Wade Payne, copyright © 2012 // Buy this photo
Even as he proudly stood on the podium in Munich in 1972 looking up at the American flag, Bill Schmidt didn’t expect his bronze medal from the javelin to open doors for the rest of his life.
Being the only American to win an Olympic medal in the javelin from 1952 until the present is a fine trivia distinction, but it’s no meal ticket.
The meal ticket would come 10 years later when Knoxville decided to hold a World’s Fair.
In that hectic scramble of 1982 when the world came to Knoxville, a career was launched that would impact the sports marketing landscape for the next 30 years.
The son of a hardscrabble Pennsylvania coal miner went from being an assistant track coach at Tennessee to one of the most influential figures in sports business.
“If I can make it from where I came from,’’ Schmidt said in an interview at his West Knoxville home, “with desire, really without any direction or mentor.
“Hard work will get you there. You get out, you dress up and you show up.’’
Schmidt will show up July 11 to be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.
His fingerprints have shown up in deals that have helped transform sports marketing into the big-bucks landscape that today is taken for granted.
The introduction of Michael Jordan as the iconic spokesman of Gatorade was Schmidt’s master stroke.
But there were plenty of others. Introducing the Home Run Derby to baseball’s All-Star weekend and the Slam Dunk
Contest to the NBA All-Star Game. Bringing Punt, Pass & Kick — with girls, too — under the NFL umbrella. Honoring high school Gatorade Players of the Year in every state. All Schmidt deals.
In discussing his marketing successes, Schmidt often chuckles and repeats a phrase:
It wasn’t rocket science.
“A lot of it, it seems to me, is common sense,’’ he said. “But common sense isn’t common to a lot of people.’’
Schmidt’s story is a self-made one. He and his identical twin Bob were the youngest of seven kids. His father, injured in the mines, committed suicide when Schmidt was 2.
Track was only a pastime to bridge the other sport seasons but it turned out to be the javelin that would earn Schmidt a college education (at North Texas State) that his family could never have afforded.
He developed into a self-taught world-class thrower and the javelin was Schmidt’s introduction to Stan Huntsman, the Tennessee track coach who brought the recent Olympic medalist south as a grad student to help coach the Vols in 1973.
In time, Huntsman gave Schmidt a tip that changed his life:
There was this fair coming to town. Schmidt might want to check it out.
He did. The assistant track coach was surprised to find himself appointed the World’s Fair’s director of sports.
Though the Fair in general proved to be a financial calamity, Schmidt’s sports operation turned a profit.
There was a sold-out NFL exhibition game, international competitions and a popular memorabilia exhibit.
There also were sports that a javelin thrower from Pennsylvania had no clue about.
“Bass fishing? Bill Dance? I didn’t know who those people were,’’ Schmidt said. “And NASCAR. Stokely brought that Gatorade 88 car in. I had to post a guard to keep people from climbing in the car.
“That was kind of the beginning of sports marketing. It was literally cutting your teeth on a blank canvas.’’
So was the position of sports marketing director for Stokely Van Camp, an East Tennessee-based firm that took Schmidt on, impressed with his work at the Fair.
No game plan, no budget, just a product — Stokely’s sports beverage Gatorade — and Schmidt’s knack for figuring things out on the fly.
Stokely loaned him to Peter Ueberroth for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Schmidt was the sports director and with the help of a “Knoxville mafia” from the World’s Fair team, helped the L.A. Games turn a $225 million surplus.
In Schmidt’s 15 years with Gatorade, the brand went from $84 million to $1.75 billion in sales and expanded to 24 countries.
His strategy was to ensure that Gatorade was visible at virtually every pro or college sports event.
“I have a good business mind,’’ he said. “My intuition and my first impressions have never failed me.
“Every contract we ever entered, whether it was trainers or the NFL, we over-delivered on everything we ever promised. You build a reputation that ‘his word is good.’
“That goes back to when you could do a deal on your word or your handshake.’’
Or, it turned out on Schmidt’s biggest deal, a cocktail napkin. During the 1991 NBA All-Star weekend in Charlotte, Schmidt huddled in a restaurant with Jordan’s agent, David Falk. Before leaving they negotiated a 10-year, $13.5 million deal to make Jordan the sole spokesman for Gatorade.
“Michael listened to me,’’ Schmidt said. “I could say things to him. He would do things for me he wouldn’t do for people paying him $5 million a year.’’
Getting Jordan was a game-changer. Schmidt would eventually get Mia Hamm, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning, too.
He left Gatorade in 1999 to become CEO of Oakley, the sunglasses and apparel company with which Jordan was involved.
A few years later he was back in Knoxville running his own consulting firm, Pegasus.
As impressive as the things Schmidt did do, there’s also a notable “almost” list of projects he considered or was considered for.
He was almost president of the Miami Dolphins before Wayne Huizenga sold the team. He was almost chief of USA Track & Field.
And twice he applied for the job of athletic director at Tennessee, first in 2003 and then in 2011.
“A lot of people encouraged me to do it,’’ Schmidt said, “saying, ‘You’ve got a business background, you’ve got a sports background, you’ve managed $300 million budgets.’
“It seemed like a natural. But it didn’t work out.’’
No complaints, though. Sports and a sense for business have given Schmidt a life far beyond the one he might have expected back in Pennsylvania, where the primary options were coal mines or steel mills.
A javelin was his ticket out and his vehicle to a bronze medal. If they gave medals in sports marketing, Schmidt would have been tough to beat for the gold.