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Major League Baseball is going to a hardware store for help in rebuilding its broken brand.

MLB has finalized a long-in-the-works agreement with True Value Hardware, making the retail giant the official hardware store of the league. The centerpiece of the multifaceted, three-year deal is a new program that turns Opening Day at each MLB park into a marketing event dubbed "True Value Opening Day," supported by national TV advertising, unprecedented on-field advertising and extensive local promotions.

True Value executives won't disclose numbers on the deal, but speculation in the sports marketing industry puts the total value in the ballpark of $40 million.

The agreement also includes a commitment to buy ad time during baseball broadcasts on Fox and MLB's other TV partners soon to be announced. The media package includes a campaign of player-promoting vignettes to support True Value's sponsorships of the local Man of the Year and national Roberto Clemente Man of the Year awards.

The True Value agreement is the first in a series of alliances that the league intends to strike with national marketers in an effort to relaunch the MLB brand, tarnished by last year's labor dispute. Sports marketing sources say a major deal with Pizza Hut is imminent, making the pizza leader MLB's official fast-food marketer.

In a statement regarding the True Value deal, MLB Acting Commissioner Bud Selig said: "Our agreement includes a variety of elements designed to make baseball more accessible to its loyal fans at a national and local level."

A significant element of the deal is a commitment to refurbish 500 neighborhood baseball fields across the country. True Value will hold naming rights but has yet to decide whether to put its moniker on these facilities.

M. Selig was directly involved in sealing the deal, as were several executives at the Baseball Network, the now defunct ad sales and sponsorship joint venture created by MLB, ABC and NBC. Also involved was Arlen Kantarian, a Radio City Music Hall Productions executive who will take over MLB's new marketing operation in January.

For True Value, MLB represents another major foray into sports marketing, following a three-year, $25 million deal with the National Football League that began this fall. Indeed, many elements of the MLB package resemble programs True Value is executing with the NFL.

"Our goal with sports is lifestyle marketing, to tap into the passions of our 25-to-55-year-old male consumers," said Chuck Kremers, True Value's VP-marketing. "When you think `True Value,' you don't think fun and excitement. Sports is a way we can inject fun and excitement into our brand."

In fact, True Value will soon select a sports marketing agency to handle its MLB and NFL activities. Likely winner: Sports Marketing & Television International, a Greenwich, Conn.-based company owned by Mike Trager, who last week completed his stint as exec VP-sales at the Baseball Network.

The True Value-MLB deal has been on the drawing board for more than a year, with negotiations predating its talks and signed agreement with the NFL. But MLB's labor dispute put the deal on hold. Toward the close of the season, talks heated up again, and the goal was to announce the deal on the heels of the successful Atlanta Braves-Cleveland Indians World Series.

MLB's opening week coincides with the beginning of True Value's critical spring lawn and garden selling season. So True Value Opening Day will include product demonstrations at MLB ballparks with lawn and garden vendors MTD Products and O.M. Scott & Sons. True Value branded premiums-T-shirts, seat cushions and the like-will be given away at games.

True Value's 6,000 outlets will dispense hundreds of tickets to the 1996 All-Star Game through promotions, contests and sweepstakes with radio stations and local teams. Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, will create TV and print ads, and True Value intends to sign MLB stars as ad spokesmen.

A potentially controversial element includes emblazoning a hybrid True Value-MLB logo on the fields in the foul ball areas and near the on-deck circle, the first time one of the Big 3 U.S. sports leagues has sold turf space to an advertiser.

"We're aware of how fans may react, which is why we're not putting the logo on the actual field of play," Mr. Kremers said.

A week before Opening Day, True Value will distribute a free standing insert with a circulation of 50 million offering values from True Value vendors and information about the retailer's upcoming Opening Day activities. Italia Gall, Los Angeles, will handle.

True Value will use its MLB rights to pass along team logos to its vendors in order to create designated MLB products.


True Value's deal:

"True Value Opening Day": True Value retailers in each MLB market will

tie into each team's home opener through in-stadium and in-store promotions, advertising and product demonstrations.

"True Value Opening Day" FSI: The 50 million-circulation insert will drop the last weekend in March.

Sandlot rehab: True Value will refurbish over 500 neighborhood baseball fields across the country, retaining naming rights to the fields.

Man of the Year: The retailer will sponsor MLB's local Man of the Year and national Roberto Clemente Man of the Year awards, promoting MLB players through spots created by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

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