TELEPHONE RIVALS RECRUIT ATHLETES TO SCORE ATTENTION; DEREGULATION PROMPTS MOVES BY WORLDCOM, SPRINT, FRONTIER

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The telecommunications industry has caught sports marketing fever.

Anticipating a highly competitive, deregulated industry, the usually cold and staunch telephone companies have been tapping sports celebrities and events to give the marketers more consumer appeal.

In probably the biggest of the new deals, LDDS WorldCom signed basketball superstar Michael Jordan to a 10-year contract. In addition to launching its first prepaid calling card featuring Mr. Jordan, the No. 4 long-distance company this week will name its first agency of record and detail plans for a major national TV campaign starring the Chicago Bulls star.

Among other big names bringing cachet to telecommunications as spokesmen: Pro golfer Corey Pavin, signed last week by Frontier Corp., the fifth-largest long-distance player; Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens for BellSouth Cellular; Jordan teammate Scottie Pippen for Ameritech Cellular; and CBS sports announcer Billy Packer as mouthpiece for Sprint's collegiate programs.

And the industry leader, AT&T Corp., sponsors a slew of Olympics athletes to tout the benefits of its brand before, during and after the Summer Games.

The telecommunications bill now awaits only President Clinton's signature before it becomes law, and long-distance and local companies have been in a mad marketing dash to plot strategies for entering each other's markets.

Analysts estimate that telecommunications ad spending this year could easily triple last year's total.

In media spending alone, Advertising Age estimates the nation's telecommunications giants spent more than $1.85 billion in 1995, up 10.4% over 1994.

By the end of the third quarter-the last measured period by Competitive Media Reporting-the three long-distance carriers, paced by AT&T, spent $651.5 million, up 16.2%, and the Seven Baby Bells and FTE collectively spent more promoting cellular operations than on any other service.

"We're hitching our wagon to Michael Jordan's star because we know we'll gain prominence as a company rather quickly," explained Gail Blount, manager of advertising and communications at LDDS WorldCom. "We want to inject our company with some humanity because, typically, telecommunications companies don't sell `things,' we sell services, which are hard to depict tangibly."

"With a well-known person, especially the likes of Jordan, people can get their arms around you and get a sense of who you are as a company," she added.

Frontier chose Mr. Pavin to portray an image that's "resilient and tough under pressure," said Jim Whelehan, exec VP-sales.

"Committed to excellence, integrity and leadership" is how Annette Loper, manager of consumer sales and marketing, described Mr. Wilkens' persona for BellSouth Cellular.

And Mr. Pippen represents "team spirit and determination" for Ameritech Cellular, said Jackie Cirwinski, director of marketing support for the Baby Bell.

"In the deregulated era, phone companies need to create warm and fuzzy feelings for consumers," said Jeffrey Kagan, president of Telecommunications Associates, a consultancy. "They've never had to do that, which explains why everyone's racing to tap spokespeople."

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