Chilly Autum For N.Y. Sports Fans

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This is a time when sports teams and marketers in New York should be making out like street vendors in a midday downpour. But at Ranger and Yankee headquarters, it just ain't so.

If not for the strike, fans might be enjoying the Yankees' first World Series appearance since 1981. But in the middle of one of their most successful seasons in years, momentum for the Bronx Bombers was cut off at the knees this summer. Meanwhile Ranger fans, still brimming from the Stanley Cup win, might be exercising their well-earned bragging rights if the National Hockey League weren't mired in a lockout.

"A lot of potential opportunity [in endorsement and marketing deals] has been lost," said Ray Schulte, who represents sports celebrities Don Mattingly, Rod Gilbert and Buck Showalter-named American League Manager of the Year last week. "You can just imagine what might have been."

To be sure, management disputes have effectively grounded most serious marketing efforts. Ticket sales are stalled. Manufacturers of promotional merchandise are saddled with wasted inventory. Advertisers are missing their target audiences. The star power of popular players has waned. And the planning budgets of corporate sponsors hang in the balance.

"We thought this would be a very bullish time," said Douglas Moss, president of the Madison Square Garden Network. "Instead, our entire day-to-day operation is shrouded in this shadow of uncertainty."

The clock is in the Rangers' favor. By the time NHL labor wrinkles surfaced, marketing programs and ticket sales had already been put to bed. Now those plans are merely on hold. But the rancor surrounding Major League Baseball's dispute will make it a very tough sell once marketing schemes are set this winter. Even Opening Day remains questionable.

So far, advertisers, licensees and other promotional partners remain patient, say team spokesmen. The 184-unit New York chain Reise Restaurant Group-one of the most active New York sports supporters-is hopeful management and player representatives will soon reach some accord.

With or without hockey and baseball in the mix, advertisers' buying plans must go on. Experts say the longer games are held up, the more difficult it will be to regain lost revenue.

Sports marketers say sponsors may find more efficient ways to reach sports fans, and the longer the baseball strike goes on, the more difficult it will be to roll out normally in the spring.

The time factor plays another, perhaps more vexing, role. As fans wearily wait for play to resume, they're expected to grow increasingly bitter. That presents a formidable, possibly long-term marketing challenge for teams and their marketing partners.

Because of the Stanley Cup win and the relatively civil tone of NHL labor talks, Ranger fans are less apt to harbor deep resentments. But baseball fans have, at this point, grown cantankerous.

Last year the ad theme for the New York Yankees was "We came back in `93. You come back in `94." The slogan referred to a late-season rally by the Bombers the previous season. Agency Burkhardt & Christy knows the strategy and execution for next season's theme will prove a lot more complicated.

"It's not a science. I'm not really sure how we'll approach the fan after this," said Hugh Miller, senior VP at the agency, which also handles the Rangers and Knicks.

He said Burkhardt will likely conduct market research to gauge consumers' mind-sets.

Normal for this time of year, season ticket holders are now receiving literature and reservation ballots. But this year, the response has been poor.

"Who can blame the fans? You can't expect them to pay for something in October that may not happen in April," said Jack Luck, exec VP of the Yankees. He said the organization where staff has been slashed is still struggling administratively to mail refunds for last season's canceled games.

Indeed. As many people begin to look hopefully toward a 1995 baseball season, others are still coping with the strike's aftereffects. Starter Corp., a sports apparel maker, was to be the official licensee for World Series T-shirts.

"We are also losing concession business and fan shop sales," said Ian Gomar, VP-marketing. "With no player visibility, fans are less inclined to buy team-related goods. But they'll come back."

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