SPONSOR TIFF SOCKS WORLD CUP MASTERCARD, SPRINT QUARREL; REEBOK DENIES AMBUSH CHARGE

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World Cup '94 organizers, preparing for soccer's mega-event June kickoff, are embroiled in sponsorship turmoil.

Marketing executives, already in the middle of a turf war between sponsors MasterCard International and Sprint, now are fending off what some see as a marketing ambush by non-sponsor Reebok International.

World Cup '94 issued a pre-emptive strike against Reebok last month, demanding that the company not use World Cup logos and marks in a campaign introducing the Integrity Pro soccer shoe. Reebok said it had never intended to use those logos.

"We will continue to keep an eye on Reebok's soccer marketing," said Richard Levine, general manager and legal counsel for World Cup '94 Marketing. "We are disappointed that Reebok should take action in this manner. They had every opportunity to become a sponsor."

Reebok officials strongly object to the ambush accusations.

"We fully respect the rights of sponsors and will not do anything to undermine them," said Peter Moore, VP-global product merchandising.

Reebok's soccer activities include a TV series breaking next month on Cable News Network that highlights international soccer matches leading up to World Cup. Reebok bought the ad time from CNN and will sell it to other marketers.

The World Cup marketing police are scrutinizing two other potential ambushers: Pepsi-Cola Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. Both organized successful soccer-theme grass-roots programs in 1993.

A P&G spokesman said the company doesn't plan to repeat its "SoccerBlast" program and said he objected to World Cup examination. "P&G is not an ambush marketer," he said.

Pepsi, meanwhile, is believed to be readying a rollout for its "Pepsi Soccer Fest" this summer.

Many World Cup corporate backers said they believe they won't be affected by other company's coattail marketing.

"Ambushes will happen, and it's your own fault if you don't come through loud and clear that you're a sponsor," said Bob Lachky, Budweiser director of marketing at Anheuser-Busch.

A conflict with sponsor Budweiser also could be brewing over a possible ban on alcohol sales at the event. World Cup marketing officials are confident that consumers can distinguish sponsors from non-sponsors, pointing to an ongoing sponsor-recognition print ad campaign and an ESPN TV series that will break by monthend, produced by sponsor Gillette Co.

Mitigating the ambush are marketing alliances among sponsors and non-sponsors that are permitted as long as non-sponsors don't use World Cup trademarks. Sprint and Reebok, for example, are joining forces for a late-spring promotion. With a Reebok purchase, consumers get a prepaid calling card featuring one of Reebok's soccer star endorsers.

But a MasterCard lawsuit filed against Sprint and World Cup '94 could derail Sprint's effort to use the event to promote the U.S. rollout of its prepaid cards. MasterCard claims its sponsorship covers all aspects of the "card-based payment and account access devices" category. A U.S. District Court judge in New York will hear the case this week. Neither party would comment.

Despite all this, World Cup sponsors are pushing their marketing efforts ahead. Sponsor promotions and ads are expected to build interest in soccer, which has never gained a strong U.S. following.

Budweiser breaks a $10 million TV, print and outdoor ad effort from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, St. Louis, on April 1; MasterCard and McDonald's Corp. will launch global TV efforts next month from Ammirati & Puris, New York, and Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, respectively. Sprint will hit the airwaves by the end of the month with a World Cup-theme spot.

Gary Levin contributed to this story.

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