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Firms May Take a Walk On Baseball Promotions

Most sponsors won't completely close the door on baseball, though the opening day of the season is not far away

By Shelley Donald CoolidgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 1995



BOSTON

PRESIDENT Clinton isn't the only one pulling for an end to the baseball strike. Corporate sponsors are also in the cheering section.

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But with Opening Day for the 1995 season only a few weeks away and no resolution in sight, and a recent New York Times/CBS News poll showing stadium attendance will fall if replacement players don major-league uniforms, some companies are having second thoughts about spending big marketing bucks on baseball.

Most companies are asking themselves, ``If there are not as many eyeballs seeing my ads, why do I need to be there?'' says Jim Andrews, editorial director of the IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks sports-sponsorship dollars.

If the players and owners settle the strike in the next few weeks, Mr. Andrews says he doesn't anticipate a dramatic drop in corporate support. In 1994, companies plunked down $157 million in sponsorship dollars, an amount that has been increasing by about 10 percent a year, he says.

But if the strike isn't resolved by the All-Star Game, scheduled for July 11, Andrews estimates that sponsorship dollars could decline by up to 40 percent for the 1995 season.

Last year, companies lost millions of dollars because of lost exposure, which translated into lost sales, estimates Terry Cecil, president of the International Sports Marketing Association in Atlanta, a newly formed sports-marketing trade association.

``It's devastating for some companies,'' Mr. Cecil says, ``and when you're counting on national exposure in a sales campaign to carry you through the third-quarter, and it's canceled, you just cannot make that up.''

The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta and Anheuser-Busch Inc. in St. Louis, both big sponsors of major-league baseball, say their sales were not adversely affected by the strike, which ended the 1994 season prematurely last August.

But many companies refused to comment specifically on the financial impact of lost exposure from the strike.

Boston-based Gillette Company normally sponsors promotions tied to both the All-Star Game and the World Series. It will have to decide just before the season begins April 2 whether it will proceed as usual, says spokesman Eric Kraus. He declined to say whether sales were affected because the 1994 World Series was canceled.

But Andrews says the World Series is probably the company's biggest promotion. Without enough time to replace that campaign last year, he says, ``I'm sure that had an impact on their bottom line.

``The problem is, a lot of companies don't want to singly come out and complain and throw numbers out,'' Cecil says, ``because they're afraid of being alienated by the owners in the future.''

But some companies aren't waiting to see what shakes out.

Take Texaco Inc., which last year sponsored the fan balloting for the All-Star game. Fans voted for their favorite ballplayers both at the park and at Texaco's 14,000 service stations across the country. The promotion turned out to be a record vote, not to mention good for business.

But this year, because of the ``high-level of uncertainty'' as to whether major-league or replacement players will be on the field, the Houston-based oil company decided to get involved to a lesser degree, says spokesman Paul Weeditz. Texaco will again be a title sponsor, but voting will take place in the ballparks and not at Texaco stations.

The company has also signed on as a sponsor of The Baseball Network (TBN) - a partnership between ABC, NBC, and Major League Baseball. The company will evaluate how fans respond to replacement players to determine the form its advertising campaign takes, Mr. Weeditz says. ``One of the things that certainly we are ... looking at is the ad value to a replacement-players' season,'' he says. ``How much weight does that carry in your investment efforts to market your products?''

But most sponsors say they don't intend to fully close the door on Major League Baseball.

Companies may do a lot of posturing, Andrews says, but ``when push comes to shove ... all will be forgiven,'' because companies have few other avenues to turn to.

``There is plenty of time for a resolution and our sponsors are standing by us at this time,'' says Ray Stallone, spokesman for TBN. ``We're selling our sponsorship at the same levels and same rates as we did a year ago.''

Among the network's core blue-chip sponsors are Anheuser-Busch, Quaker Oats Company (Gatorade), Gillette Company, Kellogg Company, Texaco, Avis Inc., and Sherwin-Williams Company. But TBN's first broadcast isn't until the All-Star Game July 11, so companies have plenty of time to see how the opening season plays out. Most of these companies also have contracts that guarantee a certain number of stadium and TV viewers.

But Coca-Cola, which last year was a sponsor on TBN and held exclusive soft-drink rights in 24 of the 28 major-league stadiums is still deciding in what capacity it will be involved with baseball this year.

``We intend to be fully involved with baseball in '95,'' says spokesman Ben Deutsch. But consumer interest, he says, will determine the level of involvement.