Baseball tries makeover

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Major League Baseball is attempting to transform its image with a series of moves and proposals designed to attract the casual viewer, regain the disaffected fan and instill confidence in its corporate sponsors.

Those sponsors are working closely with MLB on the effort to transform the baseball brand, as are News Corp.'s Fox, the network TV rights-holder, and Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, which broadcasts games on cable.

Combined, baseball's 14 corporate partners spent more than $170 million for the 2002 season spread across rights fees, media buys and promotional dollars.

An executive at one of baseball's sponsors said "We work with great people at Major League Baseball, but sometimes the people above them don't listen. Now we really feel like it's becoming a partnership in every sense of the word. I think baseball has taken a long look at its image and realized it has to do something."

Fox has committed $2.5 billion through 2006 on the network deal and quietly pushed for the possible new format for the All-Star Game, in which the game gains added significance by having the winning league earn home-field advantage in that year's World Series.

Prodded by MLB Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig-who saw baseball's image sullied yet again at last year's All-Star Game when both leagues ran out of pitchers and it ended in a 7-7 tie-owners unanimously approved the new plan for the game. The player's union has yet to vote on it.

"Yes, we supported that idea," Fox spokesman Lou D'Ermilio said. "We think it helps put some sizzle back in the All-Star Game and it demonstrates that baseball's leadership is interested in the long-term success and growth of the game, and not mired in the past."


Since the July All-Star debacle, baseball has been on a public-relations roll. It has achieved labor peace in a deal with the player's union; entered into negotiations with all-time hits leader Pete Rose to end his banishment from the game; moved 22 Montreal Expos home games to San Juan, Puerto Rico, both to help the financially strapped franchise and to market the game to the Hispanic community; and allowed franchises to create batting-practice jerseys and caps in various colors, a chance for greater marketing of its apparel. The initiative will be backed by a multimillion-dollar print and TV campaign from AKA Advertising, New York.

turning corner

"I do think we've turned a corner," said Bob DuPuy, MLB's president-chief operating officer, who has been responsible for many of the initiatives. "We needed to ask ourselves what we were going to do to make the game more relevant to the next generation of fans."

"Baseball is slowly but surely getting it when it comes to the significance of its relationship with its marketing partners," said Steve Rosner, president of sports-marketing firm 16W Marketing, East Rutherford, N.J.

To further those efforts, Mr. Selig appointed a 17-member marketing task force called "Major League Baseball in the 21st Century." The task force includes former National League president Len Coleman; Gene Orza, the No. 2 official of the players' association; Los Angeles Dodgers Chairman Bob Daly; Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner; News Corp. Chairman Peter Chernin; ESPN President George Bodenheimer; John Hancock Financial Services Chairman David D'Alessandro; former NFL marketing head Sara Levinson; noted columnist George Will; former San Francisco Giants General Manager Al Rosen; Turner Broadcasting System Vice Chairman Terry McGuirk; Anheuser-Busch Cos. advertising chief Tony Ponturo; Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman; Wharton School professor David Reibstein; and Northwestern professor Irving Rein. Mr. Selig said he will add two current Major League players to round out the task force.

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