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Visa USA is negotiating to sponsor the halftime show on Fox's National Football League broadcasts this fall as it attempts to counter attacks on its league sponsorship by American Express Co.

Visa pays the NFL an estimated $8 million a year to be its official credit card. AmEx has retaliated by cinching the credit-card category on NFL playoff broadcasts -- first on NBC, now on CBS. Visa has complained to the NFL to intercede, but to no avail.

Now Visa will try to shore up its rights by simply doing more with the sponsorship. Visa told NFL executives in January it was making 1998 "the year of the NFL."


The Fox media platform would drive a marketing program (handled by a number of agencies) of TV spots, consumer promotions and retail efforts with NFL licensees.

Visa and Fox wouldn't comment on talks.

Visa's effort to better distinguish itself as an NFL sponsor is mirrored by Anheuser-Busch. For years, A-B and Miller Brewing Co. have shared the NFL beer sponsorship, although Miller has exclusive rights to NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl. Rarely has either brand directly communicated to consumers as being "the official beer of the NFL."

But last fall, Miller did just that in promotions and TV spots from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis. Now, A-B will do the same.

"We're calling out" our sponsorship, said Dan McHugh, director-sales promotions for A-B.

However, given its secondary position to Miller, A-B can only trumpet the designation in printed communications.


A-B plans a "Bud Tailgate End-Round Sweepstakes," giving away a Ford Explorer and a trip for 12 to party at a "Monday Night Football" game. It will partner with Frito-Lay for the sweepstakes.

The brewer has a a four-year, $120 million ad buy on ABC's broadcasts.

Other companies wrapping themselves up in the NFL include new sponsor Procter & Gamble Co. for its Sunny Delight drinks.

The official fruit drink of the NFL is mulling a program leveraging the league's once-a-week event format by playfully linking Sunday to "Sunny."

Creative would chronicle the first season of a fictitious expansion team.

Coca-Cola Co. will continue to wrap itself up in the NFL in the fall, even after failing to come to terms with the NFL on a pact worth more than $30 million. The package would have renewed its exclusive national and local rights in the soft-drink and fast-food categories.

The soft-drink leader opted to buy national exclusivity in soft drinks, plus other inventory, for $6.2 million a year.

Coca-Cola will return with its "Red Zone" program for a third season, this time with a watch-and-win sweepstakes with Fox and possibly CBS.

Last week, one day after the NFL inked Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade to a six-year, $128 million sponsorship, Coca-Cola announced a 100-year, rights fee-free alliance with the National Basketball Association for Sprite. The timing of the NBA/Sprite announcement was conspicuous -- the handshake deal was struck five years ago.

The NBA/Sprite deal has been held up as a new paradigm in sports sponsorship, where rights fees are minimized in exchange for increased marketing support.


"Rights fees will always be there, but as a percentage of the deal, they're declining," said Mark Dowley, managing director of Momentum IMC, New York, a division of McCann-Erickson Worldwide. "In an age of fragmentation, leagues need the promotional support of corporate partners."

While positioned as a rights fee, Gatorade's $128 million NFL sponsorship keeps its camera-visible cooler on NFL sidelines and is being seen as a media buy. But NFL executives say the Gatorade outlay is best seen as a rights fee because Gatorade is leveraging the NFL brand and onfield performance to build its own brand.


The Gatorade deal and the NBA/Sprite alliance add interesting context to the NFL's forth-coming renegotiation of its $24 million-a-year deal with Sprint Corp. That price gives Sprint logos on headsets worn by NFL coaches, which generate more exposure than Gatorade's coolers.

"If you're Sprint," said Gary Jacobus, senior VP-corporate representation at International Management Group, New York, "you hate the NFL/Gatorade deal but you love the NBA/Sprite deal."

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