Fred Sternburg, doyen of American sporting publicists

  • 1-Milner Jack
One person in the world of sport who gets very little attention but is often the man in the machine room is the all-important publicist. He is the man a sportsman and his team turn to, to make their player or event even bigger than it actually is.
by JACK MILNER | Feb 10, 2016

In advertising parlance: You sell the sizzle, not the steak.

The publicist often functions largely in the background and in many cases is almost anonymous. One of the greatest of this breed is Fred Sternburg. In the world of American sport - and boxing in particular - he is a legend.

He is totally honest when asked what his job is. “To sell. I am a salesman,” he replied. “I am selling a client, I’m selling an event or a personality. I have to sell a story and make it newsworthy.

“If it isn’t newsworthy, what do you care? It’s my job to find that hook. I’ve got to research it. I’ve got to not just talk to the client, I’ve got to talk to you and see where the fit is. That’s basically it. It’s selling the story and researching the story and presenting it and letting the media guys run with it. That’s why people come to me.”

It’s an obvious concept, but something many sports administrators fail to see or don’t pay enough attention to.

In South Africa, for example, development is a big issue within sporting bodies but for most sports fans it’s irrelevant and they would bypass the story of a tennis clinic in Soweto. In fact, many newspapers would not use the story unless it was a quiet day and they were desperate for copy. But have Roger Federer conduct the clinic and it becomes a different issue and any publicist worth his salt will create a wonderful news story that could easily end up on the front pages of newspapers.

In the US Sternburg is a legend, because he can find an angle in almost any story and get it into the newspapers. Among others, he has worked with Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya and Riddick Bowe. More recently he has also been working with Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.

“Most of my business is boxing right now, but I’ve done almost every sport there is. I’ve done major league baseball, basketball, women’s tennis, the PGA and LPGA tours. I’ve even represented doctors,” said Sternburg.

Sternburg refreshingly has his feet firmly on the ground. Ego-tripping is not part of his vocabulary. He has rightly been described as “loquacious” but his success has never gone to his head. He knows that in this game you have to work at new angles all the time; yesterday’s success means nothing today. He spends about two weeks every month on the road, working, working, working...

The high regard this Jewish boy is held in sporting circles - especially boxing - manifested itself when in 2004 the American Boxing Writers Association honoured him with the Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award.

For Sternburg it all started in 1985 when he became an intern with a man named Charlie Brotman who was famous in boxing for being Sugar Ray Leonard’s publicist. He ran a sports and entertainment public relations agency in Washington.

“For me it was a grass roots education where I just moved my way up and learned the business, watching him with Sugar Ray. Then we got Riddick Bowe and did several fights with him and then a few accounts were handed over to me.

“When you work with people like Leonard and Bowe at that level, you get hooked pretty quickly because they are such fun guys to be with.”

But Sternburg admits that the hardest part of his job is to keep what he wants to sell fresh and interesting for the media and keeping the client on track. “You just have to stay creative. You’re doing a good job for a client and I’m the first line of defence. If I fail, the promotion already has one foot in the grave.”

A perfect example of Sternburg’s brilliance is the recent story of Manny Pacquiao’s wife having another baby. It’s their fifth child, nothing new in that, but Sternburg found the right spin for the right moment.  

The child was named Israel and in his release Sternburg quotes Pacquiao: “Thank G-d for the safe delivery of baby Israel, who we hope to raise as a good Christian, having been named after the Holy Land, which is the birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Although Pacquiao said the choice to name his son Israel was inspired by Christianity, Sternburg explains that Pacquiao “loves” the Jewish state. Sternburg added that the boxer and his family have visited the country several times.

Sternburg also revealed that the superstar has mezuzahs affixed to every doorpost of his Philippines home.

“Big ones, he got them in Israel,” Sternburg said. “He didn’t have one on the bathroom door. He seemed to know where to put them.”

He cleverly picked up on the all the Jewish symbolism, which is a lesson on how to get a story about the birth of another son for Pacquiao into the Jewish Report in South Africa.


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