The Washington Bullets may be No. 1 in the world of professional basketball, but in the hearts of those who spend advertising dollars in this area, there is still just one king -- the Redskins.
Despite consecutive subpar seasons when they didn't make the playoffs, the Redskins' grip on the local athletic-endorsement market hardly has been threatened despite the enormous oncourt success of this city's pro basketball franchise.
According to advertising executives, businessmen and even Bullet officials, there is no question Redskin players, active and retired, remain more popular with fans than do the Bullets.
As a result, advertisers and merchandisers turn to football players, feeling they are more effective promoters of goods and services ranging from cars to clothes.
Although Elvin Hayes feels he is the most revered local athlete, he admits he has not been approached to endorse any major items since the Bullets won the NBA title in June.
"I'm not surprised," said Charles Brotman, who owns an athletic promotions business. "I think at least three or four Redskins are more popular than he is, which is really no reflection on Elvin. This is just a Redskin town and it's going to stay that way."
The one Bullet to capture a major endorsement contract since the championship is Bobby Dandridge, who is featured in an advertising campaign for a Virginia bank. Guard Phil Chenier, injured at the end of the season, endorses a Prince George's County housing complex.
Otherwise, the players have had to be content with increased demand for personal appearances and speeches.
"Anyone who thought they were going to reap huge financial benefits from the title apparently was mistaken," said Dandridge. "If the advertisers are out there, they just don't want us."
This almost total exclusion from the major advertising market continues a trend of disappointments that the club has experienced since winning the title.
Owner Abe Pollin at first expected huge crowds at this season's games, a brisk business at the souvenir stands and a breakthrough in the endorsement area for his players.
But attendance is just now starting to reach a consistent 12,000-plus level, and interest in the other two areas has not altered much from previous seasons.
"I wouldn't argue with anyone who said that the Redskins still dominate this town," said Chip Reed, Bullet marketing manager. "I think we have never been as popular as we are now. We must average five calls a day or more asking for players to make speeches or appear at an opening of a business.
"We are more visible and I think the better we do on the court, the better our position in the community will become.
"But we are disappointed more advertising dollars haven't involved our players. On group sales promotions, it couldn't be better, the response has been great. But individually, it isn't the same."
A recent marketing study by one local advertising firm showed fans could name eight to 10 Redskins, maybe two Bullets and no hockey or soccer players. Businessmen use such surveys to decide how to spend their advertising money.
"The position of the Redskins and the Bullets hasn't changed drastically at all in the last six months or more," said another advertising executive, Earle Palmer Brown, who is on the Capital Centre board of directors. "I think the Bullets have made some inroads, but it's still a Redskin town.
"However, that isn't surprising. The Redskins have had years to establish themselves and for their players to win over fans. One championship by the Bullets can't change things overnight."
But Brotman believes the Bullets' problem also is a matter of personalities.
"There is no doubt an Elvin Hayes or a Wes Unseld is a great player," he said. "But they aren't superstars as far as personalities are concerned.
"They haven't got a Pete Maravich who scores all the points or a razzle-dazzle type who turns on people. The fans haven't adopted any Bullets like they have some Redskins.
"I know charisma is over used, but it's so important. A guy like Billy Kilmer or Sonny Jurgensen had charisma. They also are in the glamor positions, places where fans think superstars play.
"Even when we had a baseball team, the Redskins were still tops. I handled baseball endorsements for eight or 10 years and even a Frank Howard couldn't challenge football."
Another businessman put it more bluntly.
"It takes more than to have a player show up at an opening or an autograph session, do his job for the assigned time, grunt a little and leave.
"A guy like Joe Theismann works at it. He's sharp. He's pushing for stuff and he involves himself in a lot of community functions to get exposure. He'll stay for two hours when he is supposed to be there for one -- and he'll kiss all the babies he can find."
Says Brotman "In every case over the last two years when people have come to me and asked me for a player to do something, they've wanted a Redskin. There is one exception. There was a request for Phil Chenier before he got hurt last year."
"I'm convinced most people don't follow a team per se, but a player. It's like that in any form of entertainment. If Barbra Streisand is in "Funny Girl" down the street, she'll sell out the place. If Mary Schwartz is the star, she won't."
Most of those interviewed emphasized one point: the Bullets must develop one charismatic player, rather than another title, to begin denting the Redskins' hold on the sports athletic market.
The club's potential money-winner appears to be Mitch Kupchak. He has an outgoing personality, his hustling, breakneck style appeals to fans and he could become a superstar.
He also is white, which is a benefit, although businessmen have proved they are color blind when it comes to advertising (e.g., Larry Brown) if the athlete has enough appeal.
"Right now, I get more requests for Mitch, Wes and Elvin than anyone else," said Reed. "Elvin is the most outgoing, but I think he is hurt by his old reputation as being uncooperative, which isn't true. He's a gem to work with.
"I think Mitch has a future. He can get people excited at the arena and he doesn't mind mingling with the public. That's important."
Kupchak also realizes his potential. A modest individual by nature, he was persuaded by former teammates at the University of North Carolina and his college coach, Dean Smith, to take on a representative who would concentrate solely on finding endorsement and advertising contracts for him.
"Most of the guys in the pros from North Carolina had free cars and other benefits through tie-ins," said Kupchak. "None of us have that here. I hired Donald Dell (a local attorney-agent) to help me.
"The money is out there but it won't come to you. I think you have to go after it. But I can't go up to someone and say, 'Hi, I'm Mitch Kupchak, I'm a basketball player and I think you should hire me for ads.'
"That's why I hired Donald. He can do that for me. I don't expect that much, but it's better than not having someone help at all."
Kupchak learned his lesson the hard way. He had one car advertisement that, after he paid dues to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, wound up costing him $50. Now he endorses a Honda dealer and works with a clothing dealer.
"Mitch has a flair, a personality that could catch on," said Brotman. "He may rival the Redskins. He's clean-cut, he makes a nice appearance, he's friendly and he's just flaky enough to make him different.
"It also helps that he came here after the franchise moved from Baltimore. He can be accepted as one of Washington's own. There are too many people in this town who still call them the Baltimore or Capital Bullets not to think the older players are considered more part of another town."
But even if Kupchak grows in popularity, there are problems he still must overcome. One is the few advertising dollars available in the Washington market for any athlete, no matter what sport. So it would be more lucrative for him to crack the national market.
And, unlike the Redskins who have a lengthy offseason, the Bullets play basketball from September until May or June. During the season, their travel schedule and the frequency of games reduces the hours they can devote to appearances and commercials.
"You can't let this stuff start interferring with your performance," said Kupchak, "or no one will want you."
Hayes, however, says that there really is no major obstacle to increased Bullet endorsements "besides the ingratitude of the people in Washington.
"The Redskins have done nothing at all lately and they are getting worse," he said. "But we get ignored. It's not right. We did something for this town and they forgot it in a couple of days.
"In some other place, we'd own the town. But not in Washington."