You can't buy this kind of free publicity!
Alec Baldwin was booted from an American Airlines flight last week. The politically charged and occasionally enraged actor refused to stop playing Zynga's Scrabble-clone Words With Friends when his commercial flight was ready to leave the gate and take off. He stormed into the lavatory to continue playing, and that's when things got hairy.
"He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked," a statement from American Airlines parent AMR (AMR) reads. "The passenger was extremely rude to the crew, calling them inappropriate names and using offensive language. Given the facts above, the passenger was removed from the flight and denied boarding."
Was Baldwin right? Did AMR make the right call? The only thing for sure here is that Zynga must have a heck of a word game on its hands if its mere interruption is enough to set off a comedic celebrity.
Live, from New York
Zynga's free publicity didn't end on the tarmac of LAX (which, unlike AMR, is an acceptable entry in Words With Friends). Baldwin made it out to New York for a guest spot on Saturday Night Live over the weekend.
Lampooning the matter, Baldwin pretended to be the American Airlines flight's pilot during the show's Weekend Update news segment.
"What harm would it do to let him keep playing his game," Baldwin mused as the pilot. "Not any game, mind you, but a word game for smart people."
The crowd broke into applause, validating their casual gaming choice before a live national audience.
"Words With Friends can be frustrating," Baldwin later said, when asked about slamming the bathroom door. "When you think you're about to play JAILERS off of someone's QUICHE and then you realize you don't have the I -- let me tell you -- that'll make you slam the bathroom door too."
Well played, Baldwin.
Another word that joins AMR as an invalid entry on Words With Friends is IPO, but that's exactly what Zynga plans to pull off on Friday. After months of financial filings and weeks of pitching the social gaming giant's potential to institutional investors and well-heeled underwriter client, Zynga's deal should price on Thursday night and begin trading shortly after Friday's market open.
Zynga was already looking good ahead of the Baldwin incident.
The company that made Mafia Wars and FarmVille hot Facebook sensations last year has gone on to score big hits this year with Empires & Allies and Mafia Wars 2.
This is a bigger business than you might think. There are 227 million active monthly players accessing Zynga's network of games on smartphones, PCs, tablets, and social networking sites. There are 54 million active gamers on any given day, going through 2 billion minutes of daily game play.
Most of Zynga's games are free to play, but there comes a point at which users simply have to pay to enhance the gaming experience. In the case of Words With Friends, a few bucks will buy you the ad-free version.
Standing out in a Crowd
Many of this year's dot-com IPOs have hit the market before their bottom lines were ready.
Last month's Groupon (GRPN) and this week's Jive Software (JIVE) are two of the latest Internet darlings to go public with stellar top-line growth but a lack of profitability.
Thankfully, Zynga's already turned that corner, having scored a chunky profit of $90.6 million on $597.5 million in revenue last year. Earnings may have dipped slightly through the first nine months of this year, but revenue is already at $828.9 million with one more quarter to go.
The future should be bright for Zynga, but let's not assume it will be easy. We've seen the fickle nature of gamers, and the company has simply been fortunate that when casual gamers tired of harvesting crops on FarmVille, they moved on to Zynga's territorial conquest experiences and word games.
Traditional gaming companies are waking up to the reality that video game sales -- which have been sluggish through most of the three past years -- are being replaced by these casual digitally delivered diversions. They may lack the potent punch of hardcore gaming franchises, but the portability of Zynga's games seems to be making all the difference these days.
You would probably never see Baldwin slam the lavatory door of a commercial airline flight because he was in the middle of a Zelda game.
Zynga's the future, and unlike Baldwin, it's cleared to take off later this week.
Longtime Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any stocks in this article.