Plug the terms “Seagram’s” and “the 1970s” into your brain. You’ll likely think of an older person — perhaps your parent or grandparent — in a bright cocktail dress or dark leisure suit sipping a glass of blended whiskey, possibly cut with a splash of ginger ale or lemon-lime soda. It’s a hopelessly outdated yet terminally groovy image. Since it was the visual milieu for a lot of the company’s print ads back in the day, it’s not too difficult to conjure.
Professional sports, computer programs, and data analytics are less likely to register. The terms look like they’re part of a completely different conversation when isolated. Yet, while it was running ads filled with people who looked like extras on “The Love Boat,” the Canadian liquor conglomerate launched an ambitious sports-related marketing endeavor. Dubbed the Seven Crowns of Sports Awards, the campaign combined statistics and sophisticated-for-the-era computer formulas to measure athletic performance and award top talent. It also inadvertently provided a glimpse into the future of how we look at sports today.
How (and Why) Did This Happen?
In 1974, Seagram’s was arguably at the height of its powers. Marketing fueled its muscle. Its joint campaign with 7-Up yielded the 7 & 7, a proper two-ingredient highball created in an era when premade mixers and frozen juices ruled the bar scene. Print advertising for its trio of whiskey brands — 7 Crowns, VO, and Crown Royal — was ubiquitous, making them the de facto face of the decade’s blended whiskey trend. This provided Seagram’s with enough clout and chutzpah to launch a campaign that handed out sports trophies.
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This decision may look arrogant at first, but Seagram’s immersion into sports wasn’t a sudden move. The company already spent decades publishing sports almanacs and produced various sports memorabilia like decorative plates and bar mirrors. From 1923 to 1945, it sponsored the Rochester Seagrams, a semi-pro basketball team that would later break away from the company, eventually join the fledgling NBA, and — after several relocations — become the Sacramento Kings. The conglomerate’s former co-chair Samuel Bronfman was majority owner of baseball’s Montreal Expos from the team’s inception in 1969 until 1990. Its athletic bona fides going into the project were impeccable, and it theoretically gave the campaign a little more gravitas compared to a brand with zero sports ties jumping into the fray.
The Formula for Success
Seagram’s designed the Seven Crowns of Sports Awards to recognize athletic excellence in the big four team sports — baseball, football, basketball, and hockey — men’s and women’s golf and tennis, and horse racing (for the jockey, not the horse). Eventually, it would expand the awards to honor rookies in the team sports as well as NFL defensive players and offensive linemen. But Seagram’s didn’t want these awards to be carbon copies of what was handed out by the respective sports leagues and organizations.
To achieve this, Seagram’s connected with the Elias Sports Bureau, a famed sports statistical organization known for obsessively tracking all forms of athletic minutiae, to develop something unique. Instead of judging players against other players, Elias developed a computer-based, data analysis model that allowed it to measure athletes against a complex statistical formula. This formula was left vague to the public. However, a New York Times article from 1975 revealed its rudimentary structure: High, practically unattainable statistical benchmarks were set at 100 percent by the formula, and a player’s game stats determined how close to this arbitrary “perfection” they came.
A Seagram’s ad that ran in several sports-related publications in the fall of 1978 summed up the process thusly:
“Seagram’s 7 commissioned the most sophisticated computer program ever developed for weighting and measuring every aspect of competition. So, we get a numerical evaluation of how close to professional perfection an athlete’s performance really is.”
Over the years, Seagram’s used its advertising clout to flesh out this formula and invite intensely curious fans to write in and request more details. According to the brand, the formula considered metrics like consistency, clutch performances, playing time, offensive and defensive effectiveness, and the responsibilities associated with a player’s position. These variables were assigned numerical values that Seagram’s dubbed Performance Standard Points. They were then fed into a computer, which did mysterious math and spit out a singular number called the Productivity Efficiency Rating. The player with the highest number took home a sports trophy that was considered “one of the hardest to win” — at least in the eyes of Seagram’s marketing department.
The winning athlete would secure a one-foot-tall trophy shaped like a cylindrical Scotch sleeve, emblazoned with symbols representing the seven different sports associated with the awards. Depending on the year, it was either silver or white and topped with a crowned 7 or a stylized letter S. The winner would also receive a cash prize of $10,000, or just a tick over $60,000 in today’s money. Not a huge amount of scratch for a superstar, but enough of a prize to add legitimacy to the prize. Seagram’s also gifted the winning player a case of whiskey for their efforts.
So, How Did Seagram’s Do?
For the most part, Seagram’s picks made sense. Several players who clinched the award either won their sport’s MVP or produced incredible numbers, like Eric Dickerson breaking the NFL rushing record in 1984 or Rod Carew and George Brett hitting nearly .400 in 1977 and 1980, respectively. But the Seagram’s system would occasionally go off the grid. In 1977, its basketball award went to Bobby Jones, a hard-nosed defensive specialist who only put up 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game that year. It would also be prophetic at times: In 1985, Seagram’s gave the same award to a young rookie named Michael Jordan, several years before he began winning real MVP and NBA titles.
The formula wasn’t foolproof; Wayne Gretzky broke it with his hockey antics. Seagram’s system gave The Great One’s otherworldly 1981-82 campaign of 92 goals, 120 assists, and 212 points a score of 104.16, a few points north of the “perfect” 100 tally. When Seagram’s announced the award, it essentially stated that Gretzky did the impossible, noting that his goal total was the equivalent of 85 home runs and his point total was equal to 3,000 rushing yards.
The awards themselves weren’t always embraced. When Jones, a non-drinker, won the award, he donated his winnings to Christian charities and supposedly requested the award ceremony be held sans liquor. Running back Greg Bell — also a teetotaller — refused to acknowledge the Seagram’s award he won for NFL rookie of the year in 1984. When Billy Sims won his award for best football player in 1981, he derisively referred to the brand as “Seagram’s something or other,” saying whiskey wasn’t his thing and that he’d likely give his case of Seagram’s to his offensive lineman. Over the years, several of Seagram’s trophies (including Jones’) ended up in high-end auction houses.
A Forgotten Legacy
That Seagram’s sowed the seeds of modern-day analytics during the days of disco has been scattered to the winds, not unlike the brand itself. The company’s collapse in 2000 caused a dramatic splintering of labels and categories. Different portfolios like Diageo and Pernod Ricard picked up the shards, including fragments of whatever stories went with the brands they obtained. As a result, the story surrounding the Seven Crowns of Sports awards is one that’s told haphazardly with noticeable gaps in the narrative. The largest missing piece involves the campaign’s stoppage. Existing evidence suggests that it ended after 1987. However, there’s nothing to confirm this online, and Diageo — Seagram’s 7’s parent company — did not have any available information on the campaign when asked. Attempts to contact Elias Sports Bureau were also fruitless. As such, we have to rely on educated guesses to finish the tale.
Despite the holes, Seagram’s revolutionary campaign still fascinates. What seemed weird and alien in the mid-70s now represents the big-data DNA of modern-day concepts like “Moneyball” and stats like Wins Above Replacement (WAR). The campaign may be gone, and the awards may be all but forgotten, but its impact on how we examine sports beyond wins and losses lives on.