FUTURE REMAINS TROUBLED AFTER THIS WEEK'S BIG GAME

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Wheeze ....wheeze .... wheeze ....

The haggard old veteran that is Major League Baseball is puffing its way back onto national broadcast TV this week with the 1995 All-Star Game, to be played Tuesday evening in Arlington, Texas, and televised on ABC.

It's the first broadcast this season from the Baseball Network, the joint venture formed two years ago by MLB, ABC and NBC to sell ad time and league marketing rights. But the Baseball Network is a lame duck as ABC and NBC bitterly announced late last month they not only will quit the joint venture after this season but they won't bid on baseball rights until 2000 at the earliest.

Now, sports marketing and media experts are trying to price MLB, and their appraisals are indicative of just how beaten up baseball is.

Most experts price MLB's TV rights at a conservative $150 million, which is about how much ad time the Baseball Network has sold this season. The last time MLB had a rights deal with a network, it was with CBS, which paid $1.6 billion from 1990 to '93 and lost $500 million, sending the value of MLB's TV rights diving.

Who wants baseball? CBS, which no longer has National Football League rights, and Fox, the sports TV upstart that pumped verve and youth into the NFL, something MLB sorely needs.

The Baseball Network managed to sell out the 1994 All-Star Game, bringing in $18 million in revenue, up 24% from $14.5 million last year, the network's rookie season. But don't let the numbers fool you. In this bullish marketplace, advertisers are snapping up any old 30-second spot that can deliver high ratings and male demos.

No, MLB appears to be stumbling to the showers. The evidence is at the local level, said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, Chicago.

"As a barometer, attendance is down 20%, and sales for flagship TV stations, cable and radio are down 25% to 30% because advertisers are reluctant to be associated with the sport," he said.

The reason, of course, is last year's season-canceling labor dispute, which broke the hearts of its fans, and still MLB doesn't have a collective bargaining agreement with its players.

"If you're Fox or CBS, do you want to negotiate a deal with an unsettled labor situation? I know I wouldn't," said Bob Rosen, a veteran sports TV rights negotiator and president of RLR Associates, New York. "If you don't know for sure in 1996 that you are going to have a World Series, how attractive is the package?"

That view is shared by Neal Pilson, now president of Pilson Communications and who was president of CBS Sports during its fateful MLB years.

"Assuming there is no settlement, and assuming continued uncertainty that the players will be around next season, it's hard to imagine any network offering a fixed rights fee without a huge amount of language entitling them to get money back if there is a labor stoppage," he said.

Advertisers have been lurking in the dugout during this washout, waiting for MLB to wring itself out. Anheuser-Busch, a major MLB sponsor, wouldn't comment, and General Motors Corp., an even bigger sponsor, didn't return calls. Both have bought time in the All-Star Game, as have Nike and Reebok International, though it's telling that neither sports marketing giant has a marketing relationship with MLB.

Baseball Network sponsor Texaco had to drastically scale back its All-Star Game promotional program because the strike didn't allow for enough time to plan and execute. Last year, with Texaco distributing All-Star ballots to fans at 12,000 retail outlets, some 14 million fans voted. This year, MLB only received 5.8 million ballots.

Texaco put the displaced Baseball Network money into purchasing a USA Basketball sponsorship through 1996, but it's currently running an MLB-theme promotion for its Havoline Formula 3 motor oil. A Texaco spokesman reiterated the company's support for MLB.

Contributing to this story: Alan Salomon, Joe Mandese and Leah Rickard.

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