Monday, April 15, 2002 Updated: April 18, 4:11 PM ET
The gum to savor the longest
By Darren Rovell ESPN.com
Like Violet Beaureguard, the avid gum chewer in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," Curt Mueller hopes to find out just how much shelf life a piece of gum really has.
A piece of Bazooka bubble gum, supposedly chewed by Luis Gonzalez in a spring training game, sold for $10,000 at auction.
Mueller's $10,000 bid Monday ended a frenzied two-week online auction for not one, but two pieces of game-used gum chewed by Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Luis Gonzalez. Since word of the auction made national news because of the collectible's novelty and questions of its authenticity, companies and individuals have jockeyed to be called the leading bidder in what many have admitted is an inexpensive ploy for self-promotion.
"We want everyone to send their old gum to us and we'll give them a free sample of Quench," said Mueller, whose company, Mueller Sports Medicine, manufactures and distributes Quench, a competing brand of gum to the one favored by Gonzalez, Bazooka.
Two gum companies -- including Topps, maker of the Bazooka gum that Gonzalez chewed, and Mueller Sports Medicine -- bid on the item in recent days. So, too, did a student from Indiana University (Pa.), who admitted doing so to publicize his own little-known collectibles Web site.
"If I win this auction, it is the best PR ever for the price," David Pierce, the Indiana University student who created dpcollects.com, wrote in an e-mail to ESPN.com on Wednesday, the day he bid $3,275 for the gum. "And if I lose then it was the best free PR ever -- somewhat out of the book of Mark Cuban's views of PR, only on a much lesser price tag."
That's exactly what Mueller said he thought while sunning himself last week in Jamaica. Mueller said he doesn't "know Gonzalez from a bale of hay," but nonetheless he bid $4,500 for the gum. Within hours, he upped the ante to $10,000. "If this works, great," he said. "If it doesn't, we'll call it advertising and some kids will get to benefit from the money we give them."
If advertising is the intent, then it was money well spent, said Eric Wright, vice president of research for Joyce Julius, a leading sponsorship evaluation firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Winning the auction could be worth between $500,000 and $750,000 in equivalent advertising, Wright said. And that's just from mentions in news stories over the next 48 hours.
It's also means a possible tax deduction, ironic timing given that the auction ends on April 15. Proceeds from the auction are to be donated to Lakeview High School in Cottonwood, Minn. Mueller said his company is the athletic equipment supplier for the school.
"Once the publicity started I knew it would get into big dollars, because there are a lot of corporations that would love to hitch their wagon to a comet," said Jason Gabbert, who placed the original wad of gum up for auction.
Gabbert, who was convicted of forgery in 1993 after impersonating major-league pitcher Aaron Sele, became the subject of scrutiny when his claim that a security guard gave him the gum after Gonzalez spit out during a spring training game in Arizona was disputed. The security guard, in a signed affidavit issued by his employer, said he never handed Gabbert the gum.
The next day, in order to rest doubts about the gum's authenticity, Gonzalez chewed another piece of gum, put it in an empty water bottle and sent it to KRQ Radio in Tucson, Ariz., for safekeeping The radio station has promised to send it to the winning bidder of Gabbert's auction.
"I thought it could be worth in the millions," Gabbert said. "A full-page ad in USA Today costs about $100,000, but readers aren't guaranteed to look at it. With this type of thing, everyone is going to pay attention because people want to know who is going to buy this."
Gabbert should know about publicity. Thanks to the auction on his Web site, www.nocontraction.com, he said hits have increased 10 fold and he's sold more than 100 contraction-themed T-shirts.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org