Pro baseball begins an uncertain season

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How does a professional sports league sell its season to sponsors, marketers and fans when it has no idea how long the season will last? Major League Baseball is about to find out.

With its labor contract for players unresolved, the league opens the 2002 season with hype and hope.

Tim Brosnan, MLB's exec VP- business, declined to comment on whether clauses were written into sponsor contracts if there is a strike.

"Even though some issues had to be discussed, our sponsor partners, television partners and merchandising partners believe in the product," Mr. Brosnan said.

MLB will have a patriotic initiative for the 2002 season begun with Opening Day March 31 and continuing Memorial Day and July 4th. Clubs will pause for a moment of silence at 9:11 p.m. on the night of their first home games in memory of the events of Sept. 11. "God Bless America" will continue to be sung during the seventh-inning stretch of all games. A specially designed Opening Day Nascar theme car will run in the Samsung/RadioShack 500 on April 7 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

As for sponsorship, Major League Baseball has never been healthier. Its 14 corporate partners have committed more than $170 million for the 2002 season, including rights fees, media buys and promotional dollars. That includes the first year of a new five-year agreement signed by Pepsi-Cola Co., a three-year deal with Pfizer's Viagra, one-year agreements with Kraft Foods' Post Cereals and Schering Plough's Clarinex, and continued deals with Anheuser-Busch Cos., PepsiCo's Gatorade, MasterCard International, Nextel, Adidas and Nike, among others. But that continued good health will be put to the test if the league and the players' union fail to sign a new labor agreement.

no lockout

Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig pledged last week the owners would not lock the players out through the World Series. The pledge was to protect the season's integrity and allay concerns it would not be interrupted.

But Mr. Selig's promise left open the possibility new work rules would be imposed during the off season. Unless an agreement is signed, the only option the players' union has to counter is an in-season strike, similar to 1994 when they walked off the job Aug. 12 and never came back-forcing the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.

ESPN showed enough confidence in MLB to add Monday night and Wednesday afternoon games for a total of five telecasts a week, but declined to comment on the parameters of its contract.

Several other sponsors also declined to say whether language was written into their respective contracts to address a possible labor dispute. But one senior-VP marketing from one of baseball's corporate partners, quoted on the condition of anonymity, said, "We're not foolish enough to not protect ourselves from the reality of what could happen. I asked four months ago how many times baseball can shoot itself in the foot. I hope it doesn't happen again."

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