MLB'S PLAYOFF PROSPECTS POP UP;MARINERS' RUN HELPS PUSH AD SALES TO 90% OF AVAILABLE TIME

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Major League Baseball's most unlikely World Series contender has suddenly emerged as its most valuable marketing player.

Regardless of whether the Seattle Mariners made it past the Cleveland Indians last weekend with their playoff hopes still alive, the team's improbable run has galvanized interest among fans and advertisers, giving MLB executives and marketers reason to hope that professional baseball can regain its former luster sooner rather than later.

Going into the playoffs Oct. 3, some 300 30-second slots, or 25% of playoff inventory, were still available, with buyers and sellers far apart on pricing, media buyers said. Meanwhile, purists were griping about a regionalized broadcast strategy that doesn't make all games available to all people.

But that was before the Mariners made the playoffs by staging a classic come-from-behind victory against the New York Yankees that made the likes of Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. incredibly marketable properties.

"That kind of story and those kind of games have bolstered interest in baseball," said Jeff Hurlbert, general marketing manager for General Motors' Chevrolet division, MLB's biggest sponsor. "There seems to be a significant improvement in interest now compared to what it has been."

Now, the Baseball Network-the marketing company created by MLB, ABC and NBC that will be replaced next season by new network partners and a new MLB marketing staff-is on track to meet post-season projections. The divisional playoffs netted the promised 10.5 Nielsen rating, and the first two games of the league championship series exceeded the 14.0 rating benchmark.

More than 90% of all playoff inventory has been sold, with Braun shavers, Nike, Sony Pictures and Tiger Electronics stepping up as late as Oct. 12 for league championship series and World Series buys.

World Series spots are priced at $290,000 per :30 with little or no discounting, just shy of the $300,000 CBS was getting in 1993 for the last Series. The Baseball Network is promising a 19.0 rating for Series games.

"The irony for us is that this post-season is finally proving we could deliver just what we've always promised," said Mike Trager, exec VP-sales and marketing at the Baseball Network.

More purchases are forthcoming. Some media buyers say they've been holding out, waiting for the Baseball Network to start discounting inventory, a tactic that has contributed to a soft fourth quarter overall in the prime-time scatter marketplace.

Contributing to this story: Mark Gleason, Raymond Serafin, Leah Haran and Joe Mandese.

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