MLB FACES OPENING DAY MARKETING WOES

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Major League Baseball is heading into its 1997 season embroiled in marketing turmoil.

The league's top marketing officer is fighting to realize his vision of a unified, national marketing plan for baseball, despite a struggle with some team owners over the sponsorship and marketing rights of local clubs.

PEPSI DEAL NEAR

On the heels of his failure to sell owners on a 10-year, $450 million marketing and licensing alliance with Nike and Reebok International, Greg Murphy, installed last spring as CEO of MLB Enterprises, said he is closing deals with three marketers worth a combined $150 million in marketing and media support.

One of those deals is with Pepsi-Cola Co., and it has the potential to bring the long-simmering struggle over team vs. league marketing rights to a boil.

Mr. Murphy's negotiations with Pepsi have been slowed because of Pepsi's concerns that Coca-Cola Co.'s 23 team sponsorships would prevent it from executing the $50 million-plus sponsorship locally. Pepsi has been trying to snatch available teams and is expected to announce this month a deal with the Baltimore Orioles.

COKE IS CONCERNED

Coca-Cola also has expressed concerns that the pending Pepsi deal would violate its marketing rights.

"We don't believe that Major League Baseball is going to violate those rights. If they do, we'll take

"We've been very direct with Coca-Cola and given them every opportunity to come aboard with us nationally. But I have told them that I will personally ensure that their rights will be protected."

Pepsi's efforts will be supported by national advertising from BBDO Worldwide, New York, featuring star players Ken Griffey Jr. and Deion Sanders.

NEEDING NAT'L BRANDS

The support of powerful national brands is central to Mr. Murphy's effort to rebuild Major League Baseball's brand image.

Visa USA is close to a credit card deal, with First Bank and MBNA negotiating to issue league-branded Visa cards. The identity of the third marketer mentioned by Mr. Murphy as being close to a deal could not be determined.

Mr. Murphy had promised to deliver a plethora of deals, valued at more than $500 million, by the end of last year. He now hopes he can achieve that goal by the end of 1997, acknowledging the sales process has been slowed because he must take into consideration local sponsorship deals.

Mr. Murphy's cause will be helped by a company with which he failed to cut a deal. This week, Nike launches the first of two major baseball ad efforts for spring, via Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. The spot, called "Hit It Here!" stars Mr. Griffey and supports this month's debut of Air Griffey Max cleats and cross-trainers.

In May, Nike will break a series of animated spots featuring several baseball players including Alex Rodriguez.

The league's own 1997 advertising, created by Lowe & Part-ners/SMS, New York, also will focus primarily on players, as will 40 on-air promos Fox is creating for its MLB broadcasts this season.

Still, marketers say the perception of a centralized marketing body without authority and the lack of synergy between teams and the league are discouraging involvement with baseball.

CONCERN ABOUT AMBUSHES

A Nike executive said the marketer wouldn't have gone through with its baseball alliance unless Mr. Murphy could ensure local teams wouldn't ambush the deal.

Highlighting the difficulty in doing that is the 10-year, $91 million sponsorship arrangement the New York Yankees inked with Adidas America last week.

The Yankees/Adidas deal has perpetuated the belief among some team marketing officials and sports marketing executives that Mr. Murphy is under fire from owners, particularly Yankees boss George Steinbrenner.

"Murphy is stuck in a swamp," said a team marketing executive, "and I don't how he's going to get out of it."

Mr. Murphy vehemently disagreed.

"I have very strong support among the owners," he said. "I am supported by a board of directors that is knocking down barriers every day . . . this is the first time baseball has tried to market itself nationally."

`GROWING PAINS'

He admitted: "There are many in baseball who believe we are moving too fast," adding, "This is growing pains."

Mr. Murphy wouldn't comment on the Yankees/Adidas deal but said he hadn't seen or read the contract as of late last week. News of the deal leaked March 3, overshadowing a news conference at which Mr. Murphy announced his "March to Opening Day" marketing program.

Contributing: Mark Gleason.

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