MLB LIMPS TO NEXT BIG HURDLE--PLAYOFFS

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This week marks the end of a miserable season of baseball and the start of a potentially controversial post-season.

There's plenty that could rile fans and marketers about Major League Baseball's playoff setup. Before last season's strike, the league changed the format, putting eight teams instead of four in the championship hunt.

Many purists have groused about that change, and the Baseball Network didn't help any with its regionalized broadcast strategy. Traditionally, everyone everywhere could see every playoff game, but the Baseball Network's strategy was to regionalize telecasts of the first round.

Also, divisional and World Series games will be shared by ABC and NBC in what could be a confusing series of handoffs. The two networks will split the games but have no intention of promoting each other's broadcasts.

This all comes after a regular season where game attendance slid 15% to 20%, national TV ratings fell 18% to a 5.8 and the Baseball Network-the MLB-ABC-NBC joint venture created to sell ad time and promotional rights together-collapsed. And oh yes, the crippling labor dispute that torpedoed the 1994 season is still unresolved, and the league is without a permanent commissioner.

Nevertheless, sports marketing executives say MLB's mysterious marketing messiah, Arlen Kantarian, who refuses to confirm he's working for the league, is already pursuing sponsorship deals for next year.

For public consumption, Mr. Kantarian is still exec VP-marketing and special events for Radio City Music Hall Productions. But he's said to be in the critical stages of negotiating a baseball deal with Pizza Hut, while longtime MLB sponsor Anheuser-Busch has requested a meeting with him.

The deals MLB is said to be striking include commitments from sponsors for consumer promotions designed to whip up interest in the sport among different demographic groups, and to buy media time on MLB's new media partner or partners.

Rights fees are being priced at more than $200 million a year, exceeding the $130 million the Baseball Network will pump into the league in '95.

But before MLB can bask in the sunshine of a prosperous new season, it needs to wrap up '95 with a bang.

"From our standpoint, the playoffs and World Series will be a test to see just where the national appeal of baseball stands," said Tony Ponturo, VP-corporate media and sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch.

MLB itself has planned no promotional or ad activity to push the playoffs.

Mr. Ponturo and other sponsor executives aren't so worried about the muddle of two networks sharing the playoffs, believing fans who have stuck with baseball that far will find the next game. But the regionalized strategy concerns them.

A-B will run recent creative during ABC and NBC's broadcasts, but no MLB-theme spots or promotions could be executed, Mr. Ponturo said, because of the league's labor instability.

Texaco, another Baseball Network sponsor, plans to run a schedule of old ads but no promotions, while the Baseball Network's biggest sponsor, General Motors Corp., is planning new creative with Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. for Chevrolet Trucks.

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