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It's a Sunday afternoon, and the family has gathered around the TV to watch a National Football League game.

The younger kids are swapping their collectible telephone debit cards, produced by GTE Corp. and sporting NFL logos. The older kids are on Prodigy, looking up stats on favorite players. Mom's on the phone, ordering NFL merchandise with her American Express card via a new GTE home shopping service. And Dad ... well, Dad probably won't change.

Such a future is not that far away. Except for the GTE home shopping fantasy-which could become a reality next year-that future will arrive with the 1994 season that kicks off next week.

"Ten years ago was a kinder, gentler time. There was less clutter and a lot less sports marketing. Companies bought NFL sponsorships because their CEOs wanted tickets to the Super Bowl," said Alan Friedman, editor, Team Marketing Report. "Now times are tough. There are more sports properties, more sports programming and more ambush marketing. Where before there was never a need for a big payoff, now there is."

"A decade ago, we were selling logos as opposed to developing strategic alliances," said Jim Schwebel, VP-sponsorship at NFL Properties.

Sponsorships are customized for each advertiser, with an average price tag of about $10 million. That fee includes rights to NFL marks and logos and participation in league promotions and events.

Ocean Spray Cranberries, an NFL sponsor since 1991, will launch its first NFL-themed promotion via Rotando Partners, Stamford, Conn., this fall. In "Super Blitz" consumers can win merchandise and game tickets.

"The whole juice category has expanded, and our competition is no longer just other juice companies but other beverages as well. We have to use the NFL promotion differently," said Carol Trifone, marketing promotions manager, Ocean Spray.

GTE, an NFL sponsor since 1985, will execute its first NFL-theme consumer promotion in October when it enters the burgeoning debit phone card category. GTE will offer debit cards with NFL team logos. The promotion will be supported with print ads in NFL Game Day magazines and a TV effort still in development. GTE Focus, Dallas, handles GTE.

The NFL and GTE are talking about creating an interactive service that TV viewers could access during games for data on players, or products and services advertised during the broadcast. A test could happen next year and evolve into a home shopping service.

American Express Co., already a league sponsor, is seeking a joint business partnership with each team, including offering automatic billing for season ticketholders. In exchange, AmEx hopes to boost charge volume and the card's utility to members.

The NFL is beginning the second year of its relationship with Prodigy. Preliminary talks are now under way to bring the league's sponsors onto the service as advertisers.

Emily DeNitto and Gary Levin contributed to this story.

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