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The baseball strike, unless resolved soon, will park about $500 million back in the hands of advertisers, for them to reallocate or swallow.

That's about half the $1 billion advertisers usually pour into a season of Major League Baseball. It would include some $130 million that had been earmarked for games, mostly playoffs and World Series, on the Baseball Network during its critical first year of operation, as well as for ESPN's regular season coverage and local cable and broadcast.

As baseball risks an early trip to the showers, it's unclear who will step up to the plate to take a cut at the ad money. Exactly which media and networks, if any, will reap this windfall probably won't be clear until the fourth quarter ends.

But more than a few Cheshire cat-like grins have been seen in executive suites at Fox Broadcasting Co., where all eyes are on football. Already tight inventory for Fox's maiden season of NFL telecasts is being gobbled up by beer, auto and other male-seeking marketers.

Sure, there's still a chance that MLB owners and players will settle the 3-week-old walkout and allow what began as a banner season to climax naturally, in a World Series. But don't tell that to Texaco or Toyota, who are close to resigning themselves to not having one of the planet's most viewed TV events to sell their wares-and at premium prices, no less. Already they and other similarly dislocated advertisers are turning to pro and college football, golf and other TV sports.

Lou Schultz, exec VP-director of media services at New York-based Lintas Worldwide, New York, is in a quandary that he shares with other agency and marketer media gurus.

"Monitoring the situation daily" is how Mr. Schultz described his strike vigil. "The question before us is where do you spend these dollars. With baseball pretty much gone from the September media schedules, advertisers looking to buy media will glom up the rest of football."

And that's how Fox stands to recoup more of its $1.6 billion NFL investment-and faster-than even it might have dreamed. A Fox football sales executive confirmed as much, saying he had inventory for late September and early October set aside for baseball advertisers looking for a fix.

Those avails won't come cheap. Fox already is almost sold out, and spot time will be even pricier than the $120,000 average cost of a 30-second blast on Fox NFL broadcasts, and probably even pricier than the $200,000 that some late buyers paid.

If radio serves as a predictor, the advertiser exodus from the national pastime should soon resemble a prison break, especially if the rumored "drop dead" mid-September deadline for a settlement passes.

CBS Radio Networks had aired "World Series Classics" in place of regular season games, but just last week negotiated a deal with the NFL to extend its football contract by nine games that will carry it through baseball's post-season.

"A lot of advertisers hung in there ... but as the NFL season came in, a lot of advertisers were looking to shift into football and there was a lot of negativism about baseball," said Dick Silipigni, VP-sales.

He said CBS converted most baseball advertisers into alternative programming through September but that some are holding onto their October commitments just in case.

Don Stuart, a veteran baseball sales executive who founded the first unwired baseball network, estimated the annual ad pie for baseball at $1 billion but said a lot of what's lost won't be used in traditional media.

"They may use it for promotions and other things, but it could leave the electronic media," he said.

Bonita LeFlore, senior VP-local broadcast at N W Ayer's Media Edge, said half of all baseball's inventory would be displaced by a season-shutting strike, and that Ayer's only client with a significant baseball position reclaimed its money for the bottom line.

If anyone feels the pain, it's carmakers gearing up for the new model season.

General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet plans to shift baseball money to prime-time buys, but Jim Jandasek, manager-passenger car advertising, said it will be tough to find a good substitute.

Texaco continues to talk bravely of staying the course. "Texaco made a commitment to the Baseball Network, and it is still too early" to pull out, a spokesman said. The bulk of Texaco's marketing efforts were during midseason with sponsorship of All-Star balloting and an accompanying sweepstakes that offered World Series tickets. The marketer declined to say whether there was a contingency plan for its baseball dollars.

Toyota Motor Sales USA's remaining baseball dollars are being shifted to other sports-pro and college football, and golf, but leaving open the possibility of returning to the Baseball Network if the strike ends.

"We were pretty much able to pick up where baseball left off" with other sports, said Nancy Hubbell, media relations manager. "And we're still in negotiations with the Baseball Network. We haven't declared that the baseball strike has ended the season."

Nor has the beleaguered Baseball Network, the sales vehicle created by Major League Baseball, NBC and ABC, the two networks that were to air playoff and World Series games. The Baseball Network aimed to book about $330 million in advertising in its first two years of operation and had managed about $130 million in its debut season. GM, Texaco and Toyota are among more than two dozen charter sponsors.

"Some of our advertisers were running specifically targeted and flighted campaigns, so they will buy whatever is attractive-pre-season or prime time, pro or college football," said Jed Petrick, VP-sales. "Some have taken their money back, others asked about make-good possibilities, others are waiting to see how it all plays out. Talks with them are ongoing; we talk every day."

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