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"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."-Mark Twain.

Major League Baseball knows exactly how you feel, Mr. Twain.

The American pastime's image has been battered in recent years by lackluster national TV ratings, a lack of enthusiasm from young fans, and players' boorish antics and soaring salaries.

And while these factors have fueled the perception that the sport is one strike from extinction, Major League Baseball begins its 125th season this week eager to prove that it's far from dead.

"There are not many problems with baseball on the local level, where last season TV ratings were up, attendance reached an all-time high and sponsorship sales are strong," said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report. "It's on the national level where ratings and revenue have declined."

The bad rap on baseball stems in part from a bonehead play made in 1990 by CBS Sports when it acquired the rights to broadcast MLB games through 1993 for $1.06 billion-nearly twice the value of the property. The payoff for the network's schedule of Saturday afternoon games was an estimated $200 million loss.

The task of resurrecting MLB on national TV was entrusted last year to the Baseball Network, a joint venture of MLB, ABC and NBC. As recently as last month, however, it looked to be a bust as advertisers balked at complicated and pricey sponsorship packages.

But in recent weeks, the joint venture has signed multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals with Anheuser-Busch Cos. and MCI Communications Corp. They join Russell Athletic, Sherwin-Williams Co. and Texaco. Kellogg Co., Nike, Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade and General Motors Corp. are all believed to be in final negotiations.

The Baseball Network's broadcasts won't start until after the All-Star Game on July 12. Then ABC and NBC will carry 12 regionalized broadcasts of regular-season games, vs. 16 national games carried by CBS last year.

Marketing executives hope early evening prime-time telecasts and a league realignment that provides for four additional playoff teams will make MLB a more accessible, exciting TV sport for young fans.

Yet lurking beneath this optimistic surface is a deadly bottom line that could sink the Baseball Network. ABC and NBC agreed to share ad revenue with MLB instead of paying a rights fee, but team owners have the option to bail out if the joint venture can't raise at least $330 million after two seasons.

The Baseball Network claims it will meet that goal. But in forgoing a rights fee, MLB teams have had to raise ticket prices to make up for revenue shortfall. Team Marketing Report says this year's average ticket price is up 8.9% to $10.45.

As a result, many teams are using new marketing hooks to offer added value to ticket buyers. Some are tapping into the league's celebration of its 125th anniversary.

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