MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER MULLS TOY LICENSE; AWAITS BANDAI

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Major League Soccer is looking to revamp or retire its toy licensing pact with Bandai America following an unsuccessful product launch last year. Bandai is said to have scuttled what plans it may have had for new products in 1998.

Randy Bernstein, MLS exec VP, said last week the league still hadn't received confirmation of Bandai's plans, although adding that he believes Bandai is backing away from the license.

If so, he said, MLS would like to pursue other options, either with Bandai or another company.

Bandai didn't return calls at deadline. Its five-year licensing deal is said to pay MLS $500,000 a year in royalties.

POOR RETAIL PERFORMANCE

Bandai launched its first line of MLS action figures and collectibles last spring; a second wave was introduced in the fall. The product sold well at MLS venues and proved popular as premiums, but not with retailers.

"It's a significant blow to us," said Mr. Bernstein. The sports leagues "are clamoring for kids. Marketing to them builds brand loyalty and builds future consumers for licensed products, TV programming and tickets."

Pro sports leagues overall are getting into toys big time.

The National Football League inked a six-year alliance in August with Hasbro. Its Nerf, Parker Bros., Kenner, Starting Lineup and Milton Bradley brands will ship their first products this fall.

Hasbro also plans to become heavily involved in the NFL's Play Football youth marketing initiative.

Similarly, the NBA has a new five-year alliance with Mattel. Plans call for cross-branding initiatives, with NBA, WNBA and USA Basketball logos adorning new Barbie, Cabbage Patch Kids, Matchbox and Hot Wheels products.

Ogilvy & Mather, Los Angeles, will handle ads for the first Barbie/NBA/WNBA products this fall.

"As we get into this, as we cross-brand and build an identity in this business, we want to develop our own brand name in toys," said Chris Heyn, senior VP at NBA Properties.

$300 MIL IN SALES EXPECTED

Mattel said the NBA-branded business will generate $300 million in sales in the next five years.

While MLS executives said they would have preferred that Bandai had put more marketing muscle behind the products and had more patience, the league recognizes that its nascent, underdeveloped brand hurt Bandai.

It hopes a new ad agency- Dieste & Partners, Dallas-and an expanded TV deal with ABC and ESPN will boost its awareness, as should a new youth-targeted grassroots program, called Dribble, Pass & Shoot, and upcoming marketing programs with Pepsi-Cola Co., MasterCard International and Champs.

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