AMEX WILL LINK WITH WOMEN'S PRO HOOPS: DEAL IS DIMMED BY DISCOVER'S TIE TO TOP ATHLETE

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American Express Co. has finalized a sponsorship deal with the Women's National Basketball Association. But Discover Card's endorsement deal with WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes threatens the diminish the value of the pact.

AmEx edged out several of its competitors for the sponsorship, including Discover, which has been running a TV spot with Ms. Swoopes since late February.

The spot aired as recently as last week, a month before the WNBA's launch, and is scheduled to run through next year. It has Ms. Swoopes decked out in Nike apparel, which she endorses, and doesn't link her directly to the WNBA.

AMEX IS BOTHERED

Still, AmEx is said to be bothered by the spot, created by DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, because of its potential for linkage with the WNBA, thus making AmEx's forthcoming WNBA branding effort more difficult.

The WNBA's contracts with its players forbid them from appearing in ads for marketers that compete against WNBA sponsors during the course of the league's season. But, according to her management at Advantage International, Ms. Swoopes' deal predates her signing with the WNBA, invalidating the restrictions.

Tom George, senior VP-athlete marketing at Advantage, said the league lacks the legal right to force Ms. Swoopes to drop her Discover endorsement. While he doesn't like the WNBA's marketing restrictions on athletes, he said subsequent deals will abide by them.

"Sheryl will do well by the WNBA's marketing platform, even with its restrictions," Mr. George said.

SWOOPES IS A TOP NAME

Ms. Swoopes, who played on the 1996 U.S. Olympic basketball team, is entering the WNBA as one of its most marketable personalities. She also has endorsement deals with Wilson Sporting Goods Co. and Dr Pepper Co., and both brands have WNBA rivals: Spalding Sports Worldwide and Coca-Cola Co., the latter reportedly close to a deal with the WNBA.

PROMINENT STARS

Ms. Swoopes and fellow WNBA stars Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo have been prominently featured in the league's pre-launch advertising and publicity.

The WNBA and AmEx didn't comment.

The three-year AmEx sponsorship is estimated at $1.5 million and includes TV time during WNBA broadcasts on NBC, ESPN and Lifetime Television, plus print ads in affiliated WNBA magazines and in-stadium signage. The deal could be announced within two weeks.

The WNBA is reportedly closing in on sponsorship agreements not only with Coca-Cola but McDonald's Corp. as well. The WNBA's other sponsors are Champion Products, General Motors Corp., Lee Jeans, Nike and Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Last week, the league announced a cause-marketing campaign tied to breast cancer research supported by Champion and GM. It's possible AmEx may tie into that program.

The WNBA sponsorship is the latest addition to AmEx's sports marketing portfolio, which also includes an NBA sponsorship and an endorsement deal with golfing phenom Tiger Woods.

AMEX CHANGES AHEAD?

Changes may be looming in AmEx's sports and event marketing strategy, however, following the recent resignation of Andy Wing, who headed up that effort for the company.

While it had been reported that AmEx was looking outside the company for a replacement, executives familiar with the company said AmEx will first give an insider a shot at the job. Derek Murphy, senior director-events and promotions, is said to be AmEx's likely candidate for the job.

Contributing: James B. Arndorfer

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