NBA TRIES STRONGER STUFF; TEENS ARE TARGET AS LEAGUE PUSHES LICENSED MERCHANDISE

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A key matchup in the sports licensing industry is tipping off: the National Basketball Association's strongest ad "stuff" to date vs. a lethargic marketplace lately resistant to the proddings of its top marketers.

The NBA last week launched a new round of "I love this stuff" creative from Fallon McElligott Berlin, New York, with a spot starring Orlando Magic superstar Anfernee Hardaway. The commercial features a rent-a-clown giving up his day job to pursue his dream of playing NBA ball, echoing the plot line established last year. A mailman and a cowboy will take up similar quests in subsequent ads.

The players representing the NBA in the spots belong to its new generation of stars, with Jason Kidd and Glen Robinson also featured.

"That was a conscious decision," said Scott Dickey, director-group manager of marketing for consumer products at NBA Properties. "We want to showcase our young stars wherever we can."

The NBA will spend $15 million to $20 million in media, up from $10 million to $15 million last season, to support four separate five-week flights, the first concluding Dec. 30. The hard-to-pin-down budget reflects the mix of paid media and in-kind time from broadcast partners NBC, Turner Network Television and TBS. But this season, the NBA also will add major buys on Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, MTV: Music Television and Nickelodeon.

"The major difference between this year's campaign and last is that we're aggressively focusing on teens, our core market, and going outside NBA broadcasts in an effort to reach them," Mr. Dickey said.

The NBA can buy the kids, but it remains to be seen if the campaign will encourage kids to buy the NBA. The $12 billion sports licensing industry has been flat for more than a year. The NBA's share of that was $3 billion for its 1994-95 season, up 7% from a year earlier. But Mr. Dickey said orders for this season are down slightly and expects '95-96 to end flat at best.

Apparel is especially soft, thanks to a fashion shift toward branded clothing-featuring images from the likes of Nike and Reebok International instead of team names and symbols-a move abetted by the labor squabbles that have turned fans off from wearing their team loyalties.

Ramped-up marketing from leagues has been well-received by the trade but hasn't helped stem the slowdown. The trade is even divided on whether the arrival of Nike and Reebok into licensed clothing will help make a difference. Most say their woes won't end until the fashion cycle shifts again.

"The business is unquestionably cyclical, but it's really too soon to tell when it will bounce back," said Andy Bernstein, licensed products editor at Sporting Goods Business, New York. "We're still in a down cycle, and there's still room for falloff."

Nonetheless, the NBA is doing its part to push product. Alternate versions of the three spots include tags for 10 different retailers, including Foot Locker, J.C. Penney Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. First quarter '96 will see a spot in support of a retail promotion with Champs and another to support an NBA finals-timed sweepstakes with the league's trading card licensees

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