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Catching Up With Dan And Dave

Blog readers might notice that over the next month I’m going to be talking mostly Olympics as I am heading over to Beijing in the next couple days.

I hope this will become your ultimate destination to catch up with the business of the Games--from the most marketable athletes who will now cash in to the athletes who might lose their chance of a payday due to fractionally missing out on that gold medal.

We kick off the Olympic theme today with one of my favorite stories: Dan and Dave.

In 1992, the United States had two of the best decathletes in the world – Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. Reebok, which had just lost its brief advantage in the American shoe market over Nike, was hoping to make a splash. So they signed both Dan and Dave and, together with advertising firm Chiat/Day, came up with their now infamous “Dan and Dave” campaign, where fans were asked to root for either Dan or Dave in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona for the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete.”

With $30 million spent on the ads and an eight-month run that debuted with the Super Bowl, it will most likely go down in history as the longest running Olympic ad campaign ever.

Of course one of the reasons why no company has tried this again is because Dan qualify for the games when he bowed at the U.S. Trials.

For nostalgia sake, here’s a peek at the spots.

Yesterday, O’Brien, who went on to win the Olympic Gold medal in 1996, presented three unsung coaches with the Goodyear “Get There” Award. This award is given to people who helped Olympians make it to the games. After having a chance to talk to O’Brien about “Dan & Dave,” I called up two other people. Dan Johnson, who is now the athletics director at South Salem High School in Salem, Ore., and Bernadette Mansur, senior vice president of communications for the NHL who happened to be working with Reebok during “Dan & Dave.”

Darren: How did this all go down?

Dave Johnson: We were at the U.S. Track and Field Conference and Reebok had signed Dan and I. They invited us out to DisneyWorld or someplace like that and we were sitting in a hotel room and they were showing us all their ideas and how they wanted to put it on the Super Bowl. Did we want to do it? And we were like, let’s do it. This is going to be the biggest thing track and field has ever seen.

Darren: What happened after the commercials first hit?

Dan O’Brien: It took us as individuals in our sport and made us household names.

Dave Johnson: It was out of control. I would go to a track meet and I’d be signing autographs for two hours.

Darren: When you became household names did that lead to more endorsement deals?

Dan O’Brien: Of course. I got Rayban and Versace and Ralph Lauren Polo and Fujifilm because of that.

Dave Johnson: Visa and Oakley signed me. And there was just a media blitz.

Darren: How many spots did you guys shoot?

Dan O’Brien: We did the Super Bowl spot and a couple more, but we went back to Los Angeles a couple times. I was sitting courtside at the Forum and in the front rows at the boxing matches, but I was a little bit worried about my training doing all of this.

Darren: So we come to the 1992 U.S. Trials in New Orleans and there are 17,000 fans there. And both of you are doing well after a good first day. On the second day, it’s up to the pole vault and Dan fails on all three attempts.

Dave Johnson: First of all, you have to talk about the build-up. Reebok had handed out there painter hats with Dan & Dave and hand fans that had either Dan or Dave on it. And it was hot. Like 110 degrees. It’s the eighth event and I’m sitting in a shady area and I saw Dan miss his first attempt (at 15 feet, 9 inches). The second one wasn’t close. And I just felt the pressure with him on the third one. He no "heighted" it. It was definitely over for us. With zero points, I knew he wasn’t going to qualify.

Dan O’Brien: I was able to get over it in a couple of days, but the toughest part was dealing with the people around me – family and friends who were disappointed. What happened there set my path for the next four years.

Bernadette Mansur: I distinctly remember I was at a festival in Boston Harbor and John Duerden, our president, called me and, in his British accent said, “Bernadette, I just heard a report that seems rather odd. It seems like Dan has not made the Olympic team. Can you verify this?” We of course did and immediately got on a conference call. We decided that the best course of action was to continue with the ads and find ways of having Dan sit out, cheering on Dave. I think it showed that we had a sense of humor and that was Reebok at the time. So un-incorporate. A lot of companies wouldn’t do that.

Darren: What then happened to the campaign?

Dave Johnson: Well, we had about 10 spots that we already filmed that we couldn’t use, so we filmed three new ones. The funny thing is that I almost didn’t make it as well. I qualified, but when I left the track, my foot hurt. Doctors told me I had a stress fracture and that their advice was that I shouldn’t go the games. I went and of course won the Bronze in Barcelona.

Darren: Was the “Dan & Dave” campaign a failure?

Dan O’Brien: Everyone says that and I don’t think it was at all. It paid off big time for them. How much more would they have gotten out of it if we both made the team? A USA Today ad for the winner? And when I didn’t make the team, I don’t think anyone at Reebok got fired.

Dave Johnson: It wasn’t a failure because we definitely helped them sell that cross-training shoe that was in the ads. But I was definitely personally disappointed because it took a lot out of me for him not to be there. He brought out the best in me and I wanted to go up against Dan in Barcelona and beat him. They also told us that there was tentative plans to go on with Johnny Carson and host “Saturday Night Live.” That would have been cool.

Darren: Dan, you signed with Nike in 1993. What was your thinking there?

Dan O’Brien: Nike snatched me at like five times the amount of money that Reebok was paying me and in the end, they did it so that nobody else could use me because I wasn’t in much advertising heading into 1996. Nike supports me to this day, which I am grateful for.

Darren: Do you guys get recognized even today?

Dan O’Brien: People still stop me in airports and say things like, “Thank you for representing us at the Games.”

Dave Johnson: At track meets it happens, but it also happens with the parents of the friends of my kids since they knew of the spots.

Darren: Did you keep anything from the spots?

Dave Johnson: I have them somewhere. I also have a poster that Reebok made of me and Shaq.

Darren: Do you guys keep in touch?

Dan O'Brien: Yeah, we see each other every year or so and every time it doesn't seem like a year has gone by. Dave's the same guy I competed against.

The “Dan & Dave” spots will have forever have a special place in my heart and in sports business history. The latter has to do with the fact that a Reebok athlete actually did win gold that year: Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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