SUPER BOWL WILD CARD'MASTERCARD STINGS NFL SPONSOR VISA WITH ADS DURING GAME

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MasterCard International is ambushing rival Visa with its first-ever appearance in the Super Bowl, territory Visa considers its own.

MasterCard confirmed it will air two new 30-second commercials on NBC's Jan. 28 broadcast of Super Bowl XXX, despite Visa's role as the National Football League's exclusive credit card. The estimated cost of a Super Bowl :30 is $1.3 million.

In the latest in a series of strategic sports marketing plays between the credit card rivals, MasterCard will gain near-equal ad time with Visa during the highest-rated sporting event of the year. Visa plans to air two 45-second spots via BBDO Worldwide, New York.

Visa failed to lock in category exclusivity on NBC's broadcast, since it didn't expect MasterCard to venture into a sport where it has no official presence.

Visa's reaction to MasterCard's move was muted, but Michael O. Lynch, VP-event marketing for Visa International, indicated earlier the game's importance as a marketing platform.

"The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of the year for us. It's the biggest sports franchise, and we're the NFL's credit card partner," Mr. Lynch said.

Despite speculation that MasterCard has been unhappy with its own advertising recently, the new Super Bowl ads were created by incumbent creative agency Ammirati & Puris/Lintas, New York. Creative details weren't available, but the new ads are expected to continue MasterCard's theme, "It's more than a credit card. It's smart money."

MasterCard continues to concentrate on its longtime sponsorship of soccer and golf, and last month also became exclusive credit card of the National Hockey League.

American Express Co., which lost the NFL to Visa last spring, recently became the official credit card of the National Basketball Association.

MasterCard wouldn't elaborate on its reasons for advertising in the Super Bowl. But it's clear MasterCard is on the offensive for 1996 and may even seek ways of ambushing Visa's high-profile Olympic sponsorship, hitting full stride this spring.

Beyond the Super Bowl, Visa's role as a key Olympic sponsor is already giving MasterCard plenty to worry about. Visa plans to use the Olympics as a platform for repositioning itself as a high-tech company, as well as a global payment system, Mr. Lynch said.

In connection with its first Olympic advertising of the year, this spring Visa will break an ad campaign for new "stored value" computer chip-based payment cards called Visa Cash that can be purchased for use instead of cash. Unlike credit or debit cards, payments aren't tied directly to consumers' accounts, the company said.

MasterCard said it's also testing MasterCard Cash "smart" cards in Australia, but currently has no plans to market them in the U.S.

Clearly, the credit card company is trying to add value to what has been a hodgepodge of sports marketing tie-ins. Last month, MasterCard inked an estimated $12 million multiyear deal to become the official credit card of the NHL; the program includes a category-exclusive media package on Fox.

MasterCard also recently said it's committed to backing the 1997 World Cup in Paris, building on its tie-in to the World Cup here in '94; in June, it will be a major sponsor of the European Cup.

MasterCard heavied up its golf sponsorship last year and last month relaunched its World Wide Web page, including its first "Winners Circle" sports area keeping customers updated on all its sports tie-ins (http://www.mastercard.com/Sport/sport).

Mark Gleason contributed to this story.

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