MLB sponsors spared strike

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Major League Baseball's marketing and media partners breathed a collective sigh of relief Aug. 30 after a strike was avoided, but critics say baseball still has to polish its sullied image.

"Baseball has a brand-equity problem," said Rick Burton, executive director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center and a former 13-year executive for Miller Brewing Co. "They treat the people in the stadium as fans instead of consumers."

Players and owners reached labor peace last week about three hours before the strike deadline. It would have been the ninth work stoppage in baseball since 1972, and it could have had devastating effects. At risk were hundreds of millions of dollars in TV ad dollars and the support of sponsors and fans.

"Nobody is going to remember the bargaining sessions or how close they came to going out," said an executive at one of MLB's 14 corporate partners, who pay $8 million to $16 million per year for sponsorships. "But if they went on strike, it would have killed baseball. As a sponsor, you were leery."

a close one

That was particularly true for News Corp.'s Fox, the network-TV rights holder, and MasterCard International, in the midst of a baseball campaign that culminates with October's World Series. Though Fox would have recouped most of its strike-related losses by not having to pay the $257 million in rights fees for the postseason, a walkout still would have devalued the contract it signed through 2006 and resulted in further advertising losses.

Bob Cramer, MasterCard VP-global sponsorships and event marketing, said the company's current "Memorable Moments" campaign-supported with an estimated $40 million in ad spending-was structured to continue even if baseball had gone on strike. "Now that they don't have a cloud hanging over them, I think baseball will go out and really address the consumer," Mr. Cramer said.

Added Mr. Burton: "They have to approach this with childlike innocence. You have to get us back to believing the myth that is baseball, that somehow there is something special about going to the stadium or watching the games."

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