Hines Ward discovers a new fan base dancing with stars

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LOS ANGELES -- Hines Ward's foxtrot proficiency might not sound as crucial as being able to outleap a Baltimore Ravens defensive back, but "at this time in his career, it's all-important," said Andrew Ree, his manager.

Mr. Ward, 35, and professional partner Kym Johnson, 34, will compete tonight in the finale of ABC's "Dancing With The Stars." They won't learn who takes home the cheesy but much-coveted "Mirrorball Trophy" until Tuesday night, but having just reached this point in Season 12 makes the Steelers wide receiver a winner.

National Football League lockout or no lockout, there are not many seasons left on the playing field for Mr. Ward. He said he is keenly aware that DWTS has upped his recognition factor.

"I mean, you can't buy this kind of exposure," he said before a recent rehearsal outside of CBS Television City. "You know, I'm getting into a new fan base."

He stopped to smile at what was once an absurd notion: "When I walk through a mall, people recognize me for my dancing skill."

Thanks to analysis by companies such as E-Poll, it is possible to assign recognition and popularity measurements to public figures.

Nielsen/E-Poll N-Scores are weekly rolling surveys of 1,100 respondents age 13 and up. It is a comprehensive evaluation of the overall endorsement potential of an individual sports personality, combining the measure of awareness and appeal -- how strongly one likes or dislikes the subject -- as well as specific personal attributes and other factors such as whether he or she is "approachable," "funny" or has "good energy."

These polls are conducted in 30 markets, including Pittsburgh. The last time Mr. Ward was included in an E-Poll was on Feb. 4. He earned an N-Score of 978, what put him third in the Pittsburgh market in combined awareness and popularity behind Troy Polamalu (1,321) and Mario Lemieux (1,111).

His awareness score was 72, appeal was 84 and other, specific attributes were factored in as well. The theoretical maximum anyone can score in awareness and appeal is 100 each.

But nationally, Mr. Ward was a 43 overall, scoring 16 on awareness and 58 on appeal. Of course, this will likely change dramatically with the next, post-DWTS poll. It will probably be conducted within the next few months.

"I don't think it should be interpreted as poor -- it is decent for a wide receiver, for someone who hasn't had a lot of national endorsements and not a lot of national face time," Randy Parker, E-Poll spokesman, said about the results from the February poll.

Comparables to Mr. Ward's national score included driver Danica Patrick (54), football players Tim Tebow (41), Warren Sapp (39) and Chad Ochocinco (29), as well as tennis star Rafael Nadal (34).

That is why Mr. Ward's decision to participate in a competition reality show was genius.

" 'Dancing With The Stars'" is a powerful platform in terms of gaining national and female audience. To be a really strong national endorser you have to have appeal to a broad audience," Mr. Parker said.

Data from E-Score Celebrity was used in a separate study of male athletes before and after their participation on DWTS. Three football players -- Mr. Sapp, Turtle Creek native Jason Taylor and Mr. Ochocinco -- scored dramatically higher in a poll of women.

Mr. Sapp's awareness numbers doubled and Mr. Taylor's tripled after they reached the finals of their DWTS seasons. In the appeal category, Mr. Sapp increased his score by 29 percentage points.

Athletes, Mr. Parker added, "might get their names in the paper but a lot of them, particularly football players, wear a helmet and they don't get their faces in the paper."

For the record, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's N-Score is in the top tier locally (397) but the lowest tier nationally (16).

Anyone with an eye toward branding might jump at the chance to be on DWTS, but Mr. Ree said Mr. Ward had his reservations.

"He was really worried about looking foolish out there, but I knew if he said 'yes' he would never fail. Once he puts his heart into something, he succeeds."

The day before the show's March 21 debut, the dancers went to the 680-seat studio ballroom to get their camera blocking down pat. Mr. Ward had a tendency to look at the cameras, not at Ms. Johnson, but quickly made the adjustment.

Ms. Johnson has become the Mike Tomlin surrogate: "Hines trusts her, he's going to do whatever she tells him to do," Mr. Ree said.

In the early weeks of the show, they had friends and colleagues from around the country watching the show and sending in tips -- was a hand gesture more accessible than a simple wave? Was it OK to wink at the judges?

Before he danced a step in front of the camera, Mr. Ree said, Mr. Ward already had won over the wardrobe staff.

"You could hear them commenting on how nice it was to have someone not complaining all the time, how really refreshing."

With luck, that sense of joy the judges have mentioned numerous times has helped grow Mr. Ward's fan base. Steelers Nation is doing its part with the voting, but especially tonight, he's going to need all the national voting help he can get.

The fan base of actress Kirstie Alley and Maksim Chmerkovskiy is formidable, and that of Disney star Chelsea Kane and Mark Ballas is an unknown factor.

The fourth quarter has arrived. Perhaps the Mirrorball isn't the Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup, but it would still be a nice, shiny tribute to Pittsburgh, Mr. Ward said.

"What better way than to represent our city and our organization than to come out and dance my tail off and to have all of Steeler Nation show their support?

"It's just phenomenal."

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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