T-Mobile Touts Its 'Game Changer' Status With Major League Baseball Deal

The Carrier Is Gaining Subscribers and Edging Ahead In the Ad War

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T-Mobile, the pesky gadfly of the telecom business, is advancing its partnership with Major League Baseball and launching a nationwide campaign that takes a broad swipe at the industry.

A new 30-second commercial starting Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals outfielder and T-Mobile endorser, will premiere on ESPN Wednesday night. It centers on the company's familiar no-contract option, with announcers run commentary as if baseball mirrored the rules of the telecom business.

"It's really a fun take on the absurdity of the wireless industry," said Mike Belcher, T-Mobile's VP for media, sponsorship and events.

Yet the 30-second spot, created by Publicis Seattle, is far tamer than T-Mobile's usual televised fare, which has included an ad with Tim Tebow tackling Bigfoot.

The fourth-place wireless carrier is also linking with the league to launch a daily clip-reel contest, called Game Changer, that will run on MLB.com -- a gimmick that plays on T-Mobile's notoriety for bending standard telecom procedure. Every day throughout the season, fans can vote on a popular clip, with the winning reel taking on a new challenger the next day.

For the upcoming season, T-Mobile renewed its endorsement deals with Mr. Harper and Andrew McCutchen, the National League MVP. The company also sponsored two new teams, upping its roster to six.

T-Mobile would not detail the size of its spending with MLB or ESPN. "It's a significant campaign," Mr. Belcher offered.

The "Uncarrier" has bulked its marketing budget to catch up with Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. According to the Ad Age DataCenter, the company's ad spend went up 27% to $1.1 billion in 2012, the last year comprehensive data is available.

In the past six months, its national marketing efforts have ramped up, including three Super Bowl spots. And the reception to its ads have outranked the three larger U.S. carriers, according to Ace Metrix, an ad analytics firm. "They are the best advertiser over that stretch," said Jonathan Symods, executive VP of marketing at Ace Metrix. "It's clearly working."

Ace Metrix polls respondents on whether they would try a service they have never used. Around half of those surveyed say they would give T-Mobile a shot; the rates for the other three carriers are lower.

Consumers are coming on board, too. Last Thursday, T-Mobile posted second quarter earnings that revealed it added more net postpaid subscribers -- 1.3 million -- than Verizon Wireless and AT&T combined. Its rate of "churn," or sustained subscribers, reached a record low. At its pace of adding customers, T-Mobile could soon overtake Sprint to become the third-largest carrier.

But while the company posted revenue gains, it lost considerable profits, shelling out around $100 million on subscriber early termination fees, the penalty for dumping contracts T-Mobile has vowed to cover.

Its new televised spot is aimed at the entire telecom business rather than a particular competitor. But Mr. Belcher admitted that the company is not abandoning its habit of pilloring rivals by name.

With its endorser, T-Mobile does risk turning off potential customers. Famous athletes, like LeBron James, a Samsung endorser, can be loved by some fans, and loathed by others. Mr. Harper, the cocksure 21-year old left-fielder, is far from universally adored.

"Sports marketing is somewhat of a mixed bag," Mr. Symonds said. "Not everyone is Ellen."

The ads are planned to run in rotation throughout the baseball season.