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MARKETERS STUCK IN THE STRIKE ZONE LONG WALKOUT COULD DRIVE THEM FROM BASEBALL

By Published on .

"We were going to walk away from baseball. The demos were getting older, and young people were not watching the games on TV. It'll be a shame if a strike ends the season. Baseball is more popular than it's been in seven years."

-Bill Schmidt, VP-sports marketing, Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade unit

Many of Major League Baseball's biggest ad boosters were quick to echo Mr. Schmidt, but they also underscored that anything more than a short players strike would cause them to abandon the national pastime for greener marketing fields.

With players set to strike Aug. 12, some of the nation's biggest advertisers were considering their options.

"In terms of my client, Chevrolet, if these games go away, we'll have to spend some new money or reallocate baseball dollars this fall to support the Chevy Lumina and Monte Carlo," said Lou Schultz, exec VP-director of worldwide media services at Lintas Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich. Chevy parent General Motors Corp. is the Baseball Network's biggest corporate sponsor at more than $450 million.

A quick strike-eating only several weeks of the regular season-would have a negligible impact on the rookie Baseball Network and its sponsors. Rebates and make-goods on ad buys could be easily made and the valuable post-season inventory would remain intact.

A lengthy strike would cause some big problems for Anheuser-Busch, which uses its local tie-ins and buys with all but one MLB team as the major foundation for its summer advertising. A-B may spend more than $50 million on local baseball buys and would suddenly see those gross rating points disappear.

Another problem would hit shortly. A-B's deal with MLB to be a sponsor of the Baseball Network gave A-B rights to the divisional playoffs and World Series that the brewer had planned to use in a promotion that would serve as lure to retailers for September and October display space.

A strike would come just as MLB seems to have gotten its marketing act together, with the Baseball Network, ABC and NBC's regionalized, prime-time game broadcasts boosting ratings.

Many media buyers have little faith that the Baseball Network will survive if a prolonged strike prevents the fledging unit from meeting team owners' two-year sales goal of $330 million.

Owners have an option to dump the Baseball Network after two years, and with rumors swirling that News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch is interested in picking up baseball for his Fox network-and willing to pay for it-owners might just be tempted to give the Baseball Network the hook.

Even Baseball Network executives can't predict its future should a strike wash out its rookie season. "I can't answer that," said Mike Trager, director of sales. "I really don't have any idea. We'll face that two years from now, when we know where we stand."

Baseball has also benefited this year from renewed interest in some cities due to divisional realignment. Also, the sport seemed to have recovered from some of the black eye suffered recently by player misconduct. Marketers have been looking at the likes of home run heroes Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Belle and Matt Williams as endorsers or potential endorsers.

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