Sprint nears connection with NFL

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Proposed $40 mil sponsorship deal would set new record in pro sports

The National Football League is close to signing Sprint Corp. to the biggest sponsorship deal in all of pro sports, worth $40 million a year.

Sprint and NFL Properties, the league's marketing arm, refused to comment, but the No. 3 long-distance company is said to have received the nod as the NFL's new telecommunications sponsor. The deal's details are being finalized.

The pact's price tag was deemed too high by AT&T Corp., which also vied for the sponsorship. GTE Corp. was the incumbent.

The deal calls for Sprint to annually pay an estimated $18 million plus $6 million in services to the league and its teams. Also, Sprint is said to be willing to meet the NFL's minimum media requirement of $15 million, though it initially wasn't sure a buy that big fit its budget or strategic goals.

The media expenditure is the last major detail being worked on, say those close to the discussions.

Talks have centered on a three-year package, but it may take the form of a two-year deal with an option for a third. Executives familiar with the negotiations say both sides believe three to five years are needed to establish a link between the brands in the minds of consumers.

AT&T RECONSIDERED

The high price pushed AT&T to reconsider pursuing the sponsorship. Executives say AT&T was concerned about the possible negative publicity that news of the deal might generate so soon after announcing massive layoffs.

Another timing factor: NFL Properties needs to conclude the talks soon so teams can make budget and business plans accordingly, and AT&T needed more time to assess the deal.

The NFL wanted a telecom partner that would use the league as a primary, year-round marketing vehicle, and Sprint was willing.

Sprint has an alliance with Interactive Sports Inc., a multimedia company that has developed Coach TV, an online service for pro teams which delivers game video and statistics, plus the tools to edit and analyze them.

In 1995, Sprint and ISI tested a version of this service with four NFL teams. Now, Sprint and ISI may create a network for all teams. ISI wouldn't comment.

The NFL's structure is different in that it currently can sell exclusive national packages; Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL allow teams to sell local sponsorships.

THE JONES FACTOR

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wants to change the NFL structure. Mr. Jones and the league are in the midst of a legal battle over controversial sponsorships that Mr. Jones sold last year to competitors of NFL sponsors.

Mr. Jones failed to convince fellow owners to stop the telecom pact and is trying to do his own deal. He is said to have sent AT&T a seven-figure proposal within the past two weeks.

AT&T, averse to ambush marketing, isn't expected to respond with interest. "AT&T is not an ambush marketer," said one executive involved in negotiations.

Clarion Performance Properties, Greenwich, Conn., handles Sprint's sports marketing and does work for NFL Properties.

Copyright April 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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