BASEBALL GETS BACK IN SWING OF THINGS BUT ONLY 75% OF BROADCAST AD TIME MAY SELL

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Major League Baseball teams and broadcasters will have to hustle to win back their fans and advertisers, but the early scouting reports are cautiously optimistic.

Marketing and ad sales efforts begin in earnest this week after a week of waiting for the league to put together a strike-shortened 144-game schedule. Broadcasters were more concerned by the delay than the clubs, as most said the best they could now hope for was selling 75% of their season's inventory. The baseball ad marketplace is estimated at $700 million.

Still, game plans were being drawn up last week. According to executives at many MLB teams, a national TV, radio and outdoor campaign created by MLB agency Partners & Shevack, New York, is awaiting final approval from a league committee charged with creating an integrated marketing effort to launch the season. It will resemble the "Game on!" campaign the National Hockey League launched after its labor dispute was settled in February.

The baseball campaign's tagline is "Let's play ball." The ads are said to be conciliatory but fall short of apologizing to fans for the nearly eight-month work stoppage.

MLB has created a separate "Play ball!" logo that will reach all teams by today. The league wants clubs to use the logo in their various marketing activities. Moreover, MLB is looking at licensing "Play ball" merchandise.

Most clubs will launch their ad efforts this week. Many are plugging half-off tickets for their first home games. The Los Angeles Dodgers will feature legendary broadcaster Vin Scully in a humorous new spot. The Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins are marketing the entertainment value of their new stadiums. The Mariners will blanket Seattle with banners. Many teams are also preparing promotional blasts to kick off the season (see related story on Page 33).

Some still have reservations.

"We will wait and see on that one," said Steve Greenberg, VP-marketing and operations, Pittsburgh Pirates. "I don't think you can sell a new image of the players and the way they are going to interact with fans until they actually do it."

But the early indication is fans want baseball. Cleveland season ticket renewals are at 97%, while Toronto reports a season ticket waiting list 10,000 names long.

And broadcasters believe the ratings will be there, as well.

"We think there's pent-up demand for baseball, and we believe a backlash, if any, will be minimal," said Blaine Rominger, general sales manager, KTLA, which broadcasts Los Angeles Dodgers and California Angels games.

ESPN will telecast the first game of the season April 25. A spokesman said the cable network's agency, Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., is preparing several on-air campaigns.

But broadcasters will find it more difficult to lure advertisers back to baseball. The strike scared away many from buying baseball during the game's November to March selling season. Second-quarter ad dollars are now gone and the third-quarter marketplace is already very tight.

"The $64,000 question right now for all of us is this: Is there still a scatter market left?" said Mark Mariani, exec VP at Turner Sports Sales. "And if people don't watch in the second quarter, it will impact pricing for third quarter if there are still dollars to be spent."

Broadcasters are hopeful they can woo back the advertisers that put their baseball dollars into other sports. Their pitch: Without baseball, they won't have a vehicle to reach adult males this summer.

Many local and regional broadcasters say the best they can hope for is a 75% sellout.

As for the Baseball Network, the ABC-NBC-MLB joint venture won't meet its two-year, $330 million sales goal, and as a result, owners can pull the plug and shop for a rights deal instead of sharing ad revenue with ABC and NBC.

Contributing to this story: Joe Mandese, Alan Salomon and Jeffery D. Zbar.

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