SEARS PROMO HOOPS IT UP;WOMEN'S MEN'S NCAA TOURNEYS GET EQUAL BILLING IN SWEEPSTAKES

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Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s first National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball promotion illustrates that women's hoops are fast becoming a viable marketing tool.

The retailer's "Legends of the Final Four" promotion, running March 17-30, will feature a sweepstakes with a grand prize of four tickets to the 1997 men's or women's Final Four. The winner will be accompanied by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and women's star Sheryl Swoopes.

The promotion will be backed by a 30-second spot via Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, as well as print and radio ads.

Also, special limited-edition trading cards, featuring past NCAA Final Four outstanding men's and women's players and coaches, will be sold at Sears stores, with proceeds going to the Coaches vs. Cancer charity.

Einson Freeman, Paramus, N.J., helped coordinate the sweepstakes promotion.

LEVELING THE FIELD

"The promotion we have decided to mount allows us to put both men's and women's basketball on a level playing field," said Brian Kelly, former director of event marketing, recently promoted to director of softlines marketing for Sears. "We believe the recognition of women's equality in .*.*. sports is important to the female head of household that Sears is targeting."

Basketball is the most popular sport for female athletes with 13.5 million participants, an increase of 22% over the last seven years. And women's basketball is gaining popularity with the fans. In the 1994-95 NCAA women's season, almost 5 million attended games, up 9% from the previous season.

The sport is also getting more TV exposure. ESPN inked a $19 million, seven-year deal to air the women's NCAA tournament.

AD STARS WOMEN PLAYERS

Sears this month breaks a 30-second image spot, created by Young & Rubicam, New York and Chicago, showing Women's National Team players off the court, doing community service and eating pizza.

The promotional campaign will run equally on men's and women's NCAA games in partnership with the National Association of Basketball Coaches, Women's Basketball Coaches Association and American Cancer Society.

SEARS EYES EVENTS

The "Legends of the Final Four" promotion fits into an ongoing effort by Sears to add event marketing to its "softer" image effort. Sears also will sponsor Gloria Estefan's 1996 concert tour and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"Events have become a significant part of our marketing strategy because we as a retailer have a unique opportunity to engage a consumer with an event sponsorship more than packaged goods and other brands," Mr. Kelly said.

Sears' marketing success has helped the retailer boost sales during a time when many have suffered. Domestic store sales rose 8.3% to $1.73 billion for the four weeks ended March 2, compared to a similar period last year. Comparable store sales grew 5.1%.

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