BACKBOARD IDEA NETS ADVERTISERS, CRITICS

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Fila USA and Foot Locker are taking cause marketing to the hoop and already drawing fire from some activists.

The two marketers have teamed up to buy space on 625 soon-to-be refurbished basketball backboards on New York City school playgrounds, the first site of a proposed National Backboard Network that will initially span 11 U.S. cities.

The network is being assembled by Van Wagner Communications' new mini-outdoor board division, Van Wagner Playground Programs, which is looking at expanding to indoor gymnasiums next.

Fila and Foot Locker are the first two marketers to participate. Together, they will pay Van Wag-ner an estimated $1.5 million, over three years, to remove dilapidated backboards at New York elementary and junior high schools, replace them with reinforced new ones and maintain them.

In exchange, the marketers have the right to run their logos above a motivational message such as "Stay in school," with a potential audience of 735,000 students. The schools get no money, just the makeover of the boards.

The use of a marketer's corporate icon on a basketball court is the latest sign of what some critics call the overcommercialization of the nation's schools.

"I'm horrified," said Peggy Charren, children's media consultant and founder of the now defunct Action for Children's Television. "Schools in trouble are relying more and more on corporate takeover of classrooms, gyms and arenas to sell kids products they don't need or can't afford."

Among the other in-school ad vehicles she opposes are Whittle Communications' Channel One; Kraft USA's and Kellogg Co.'s nutrition curriculum; and the Chamber of Commerce's economic curriculum.

"This is not an advertising vehicle," said Mark Westerman, Fila associate director of advertising. "I don't expect [students] to see our name and run to the store to buy Fila. We're looking at it as a way to give back to the community that buys our products."

About 125 prototypes of the new backboards have already gone up in 60 schoolyards in all five boroughs where schools can't afford to put up new boards.

Each of the schoolyards has four basketball courts; one of the backboards will carry either a Fila or Foot Locker logo, or a combination of the two.

For now, the remaining backboards are still available for lease, but new sponsors can't compete with either Fila or Foot Locker.

In addition to New York, Van Wagner is under contract to sell space on more than 6,000 schoolyard backboards in cities including Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Washington and Dallas. Fila has yet to commit to the program outside New York, but Mr. Westerman said, "It's a consideration."

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