By Patrick Hickey Jr.
When “Sweet Georgia Brown” hits the speakers, fans young and old still remember and recognize it as the theme song for the basketball magicians known as the Harlem Globetrotters.
The only problem is no one knows how long nostalgia and a rich history can keep it that way.
Losing their once seemingly limitless popularity and pop-culture status over the past decade and a half, the Globetrotters have become a tired, yet classy reminder of a golden age of basketball that has been replaced with charismatic and troubled NBA personalities like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury.
New Globetrotters CEO Kurt Schneider is out to change that.
“What we’ve been trying to do is take the team away from being a live entertainment company that someone sees once a year and turn it into something where fans can come interact with us and be a part of the fun 365 days a year,” said Schneider at a recent practice session in an uptown gym. “This is the greatest sports entrainment brand in the world. For 82 years, they’ve been thrilling people. Marketing them is the easy part.”
Leaving World Wrestling Entertainment in May where he was the Executive Vice President of Marketing during his four-year stay, Schneider has big plans for the company. Having already revamped the entire Globetrotters website to be more fan-friendly and releasing a Globetrotter video game for the Nintendo DS a few months ago, he has begun to work on a DVD deal and a reality-TV show. These maneuvers, Schneider said, will play a part in bringing the team back to its glory days in the ’50′s and ’60′s.
Also realizing the need to bring the vibrant personalities showcased on the court into the home, Schneider said that he plans to put the players names back on their jerseys for the first time in nearly two decades and is working on getting jerseys available to the public via retail stores.
This will combine the individualistic and self-promoting nature basketball has assumed over the past few years, with the family entertainment Harlem is known for and will give the team an opportunity to recapture an audience desperate to see family-friendly action on the court.
“From now on, everyone will come to see the Globetrotters to see stars,” Schneider said. “Yeah, you come because you like the brand, but you stay because of an emotional attachment you have to a player.”
Considering all of the criticism and scandals in the NBA the past few years, Schneider said there’s still a market for wholesome family entertainment on the basketball court and promised fans will get just that.
“This is a great place to come with the family,” he said. “These players are role models. In order to be a Globetrotter you need to be three things: an entertainer, a talented-athlete and a good citizen. All of our players understand that and spend countless hours involved with the community and never forget that there are children watching.”
For the Harlem Globetrotters themselves, whose salaries average anywhere from $60,000 to $500,000 a year, the chance for more mainstream media exposure makes their job much more fulfilling. Despite over 200 live performances a year, the Globetrotters know that performing in front of people is only part of their job. Aside from playing on the court, the wizards of the hardwood visit hospitals and schools at a breakneck pace, but feel they need more exposure to reach more people. To them, getting back on television for the first time in 14 years will help the team become more accessible to the public and will play a pivotal role in their future success.
“We’re all looking forward to getting back on TV and being recognizable characters to the general public again,” said current Globetrotter power forward Eugene “Wildcat” Edgerson, who is the only player in Arizona State to have played in two NCAA final fours. “Kurt is extremely charming and charismatic and he brings a lot of new ideas and a ton of passion to this organization. I’m confident if we’re patient and we follow his lead, this organization will be able to rock and shake like we used to.”
With all the focus today on the bad boys of the NBA and roughneck made for DVD street ball competitions, Edgerson said there’s a niche the Globetrotters can fill, despite their waning popularity over the past decade.
“The Harlem Globetrotters are still around,” said the 6’7″ Edgerson, who also sports an afro and a headband around his neck as a tribute to former Globetrotters during games. “We’ve been around 82 years. We’re the best at what we do and that’s family entertainment. No one bickers or fights with anyone and we show the fans the love and respect that they deserve every chance we get.
“Those street ball groups out there do what they do well and sometimes even at a very high level, but there’s only one Harlem Globetrotters.”
Even the old-school Trotters see the potential in Schneider’s plan to bring the team back into the public spotlight and take advantage of the internet and whatever else he can.
“I think all the changes have been positive and I’m confident they’re going to make the most of it,” said former Globetrotter Tex Harrison, who played with the team from 1954-1972. “I think all of these players will look back later in life and see that these were the best years of their careers.”
While the experience on the court may still be the same, with tomahawk dunks, water throwing and players running around with their pants down still common place, the Harlem Globetrotters will see just how effectively Schneider’s methods will be in the revitalization process.
“Sweet Georgia Brown” is still singing loudly enough for everyone to hear, but only she knows for how long.