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Madison Avenue's relationship with licensed sports apparel companies is proving to be a combustible alliance.

David Strumeier, president of marketing and merchandising for Pro Player, Secaucus, N.J., said a defamation lawsuit is being prepared against D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York. At issue is DMB&B's statement that it quit the $5 million account in an Aug. 23 letter; Mr. Strumeier contends it was verbally fired Aug. 19 after just five months on the account.

Mr. Strumeier said DMB&B is withholding a fall campaign, and that if the work is turned over within a week, no suit will be filed. The agency had no comment.

On Aug. 26, just three days after the breakup, Pro Player hired previous runner-up Bates USA.

That dispute comes days after Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, dumped the $12 million Starter Corp. account, calling "untenable" the working relationship with Ian Gomar, VP-marketing at the New Haven, Conn., company. Late last week, the business moved to Chiat/Day, New York, the agency Mr. Gomar is said to have favored in an earlier review.

Such discord underscores licensed apparel marketers' inexperience in professional advertising.

"It's been such a growth industry, but now these companies have to market like the big boys, and they don't know how to do that," said Greg Pesky, managing editor of Sporting Goods Business.

The licensed sports apparel craze of the past decade was such that "all a company had to do was put a logo on a jacket and make a million dollars," said one observer.

Now the boom is over, and no company dominates the fragmented $7 billion category. No. 1 Starter has just a 5% share.

"This is a commodities business," said Steve Friedman, exec VP at Hill Holliday. "They all make the same thing. What they need is long-term strategic thinking."

Marketing budgets in the volatile industry are often in flux. And while marketers say they're increasing spending (AA, Aug. 22), it remains to be seen how quickly they will change the way they spend.

Most will still devote more than two-thirds of their marketing dollars to promotions and to supply athletes with their products.

"[A]t some point, the industry will all shake out, and major players will emerge and the fringe players will go away, and then we'll see a significant shift," said David Venneri, advertising manager for Apex One, Piscataway, N.J.

Apex has had its own troubles with Partners & Shevack, New York. Both acknowledge the marketer fell behind on payments to the agency in the past year due to increased production costs, but say the problem was resolved after an Apex refinancing last spring.

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