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Opening Day of the 1994 Major League Baseball season has finally arrived, and a TV ad sales team is ready to take the field with an innovative approach to selling baseball broadcasts.

But it's not the Baseball Network, MLB's new joint venture with ABC and NBC.

No, it's Group W Sports Marketing, the Group W Broadcasting unit that handles national and local ad sales for 15 regional sports networks and 17 professional sports teams. But it's the New York-based company's deal with the Baltimore Orioles that begs comparisons to the joint venture.

The Baseball Network offers national advertisers packages of MLB sponsorships and TV time on the ABC and NBC regionalized prime-time broadcasts. Group W Sports can bundle Orioles marketing rights and time on broadcasts of the 162 games that will be televised, for the most part, on a broadcast station and regional sports networks owned by Group W Broadcasting.

Another similarity: The Baseball Network will split revenues among MLB, ABC, and NBC; Group W Sports, which paid a small rights fee to the Orioles, will also share a portion of ad revenue with the team.

"The structure of the Baseball Network was in the back of our minds when we were working out this deal," said David Zope, director of marketing and advertising for the Baltimore Orioles.

The deal was cut in February, so Group W Sports has had to move quickly to sign advertisers for its first regular season broadcast this week.

But Group W Sports has already signed two big league advertisers-Bell Atlantic Corp. and Southwest Airlines-as well as a score of smaller marketers.

Working closely with Mr. Zope's marketing forces, Group W Sports is able to offer advertisers anything they might want. Bell Atlantic, for example, gets four units per game, in-game mentions, hospitality and rights to use team marques in advertising. Southwest's package includes TV time and in-stadium signage.

"It's really one-stop shopping, and it makes the buying process easier for advertisers and provides them with added values that are less expensive than buying everything separately," said Bill Aber, the senior VP-general manager at regional sports network HTS who oversees Group W Sports' ad sales efforts for the Orioles.

In-stadium signage is controlled locally, so the Baseball Network can't add that to its package. But the Orioles' Mr. Zope noted that the spirit of cooperation that exists between the network and MLB teams could lead to coordinated marketing efforts.

Group W Sports will break additional new ground if it finalizes an agreement with Princeton Electronic Billboards, makers of the "virtual signage" technology. This would allow broadcast producers to superimpose ad messages on stationary objects on the TV screen.

The virtual signage would be used to place ad messages on the wall behind home plate. If Princeton is brought aboard this season, Southwest Airlines is likely to be among the advertisers using it.

Now approaching its five-year anniversary, Group W Sports has grown from a national sales rep for a couple of regional networks to a vital marketing organ not only for its three baseball clients-the Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners-but several pro basketball and pro hockey teams.

While Group W Sports doesn't handle the same scope of responsibilities for other clients as it does for Baltimore, executives at Group W hope that will change.

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