MARKETERS LOOK EAGERLY TO FOX BASEBALL ROLE

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With the 1995 Major League Baseball season heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, players key to its 1996 marketing comeback are about to emerge.

MLB is expected to announce this week that it has sold broadcast TV rights to CBS and Fox, thus doing away with the Baseball Network, the joint venture among the league, ABC and NBC.

The announcement will clear up last week's confusion. Initial reports said CBS and Fox would pay $880 million over four years to split the rights. But later reports had it that negotiations were ongoing.

Clouding the picture is the late entry of ABC to the bidding war, prodded by its new parent, Walt Disney Co., as well by competition between MLB cable carrier ESPN and Turner Broadcasting System for a share of post-season games.

Regardless, the new deals will ensure that no post-season game will go untelevised nationally, resolving complaints about the Baseball Network's regionalized strategy. But it remains to be seen if there will be enough ad dollars to support more telecasts.

Still, marketers are encouraged by what they're hearing, and they hope Fox will invest in baseball the same level of youthful promotion the network put into the National Football League (which, ironically, Fox stole from CBS).

The possibility of early season Saturday afternoon games on Fox could woo new marketers and advertisers, such as True Value hardware stores. "We need a vehicle for the late spring and summer, so we need the beginning of the season," said Chuck Kremers, VP-marketing at True Value's parent, Cotter & Co. For the past two seasons, ABC and NBC didn't begin broadcasts until July.

The new broadcast deal will accelerate the signing of new MLB sponsors. Proposed packages include commitments to buy certain levels of media time, dictated by the networks' rights fees.

This drama is being played against the backdrop of the 1995 World Series, which pits the Cleveland Indians against the Atlanta Braves. Sports marketing expert David Burns, president of the Chicago-based Burns Sports Celebrity Service, said he believes the Series will yield few heroes for the ad industry. But he forecast the Indians' Orel Hershiser and the Braves' Greg Maddux could walk away with a deal or two. Cleveland's Albert Belle could score some ad work as well.

Going into Game 1 Oct. 21, the Baseball Network had less than 10% of its inventory left, priced at $275,000 to $290,000 per spot.

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