SBJ/September 7 - 13, 1998/No Topic Name

Lipton to bow out of title sponsorship

The biggest upset in the tennis world may not be one of the many occurring at the current U.S. Open, but one that took place 2,000 miles away in Key Biscayne, Fla.

In a shocker, Ericsson Mobile Phones ousted Lipton as the title sponsor of the fifth-largest tennis event in the world. So intertwined was Lipton with the event over the last 13 years that it has become known simply as "The Lipton."

While neither Ericsson nor the tournament would disclose financial details, experts say the five-year deal is likely worth up to $5 million annually. The general rule of thumb in tennis is that title sponsors cover the prize money, which in Lipton's case is $4.8 million. Ericsson will assume title sponsorship in the year 2000.

The prestige and success of the Lipton event may have made it too expensive for the tea company, which is owned by the Dutch firm Unilever, to afford.

"It is difficult for any consumer packaged-good brand to keep up with that level of title sponsorship," said Fred Fried, chief operating officer for Integrated Sports International. "It is a big difference. You need to move a lot of tea bags to [equal] one of [Ericsson's cellular phones]."

Technology companies are in competition for name recognition, and one way of getting it is through sports sponsorships. Ericsson sponsors a minor league tennis series in Latin America, and it named the National Football League stadium in Charlotte.

Ironically, because tennis tournaments do not allow cellular phone use during play, Ericsson's products cannot be used during matches at the event. But the prestigious and affluent international following Lipton attracted in its 13 years would make the tournament important for Ericsson.

Ericsson will clearly hope for the same recognition Lipton enjoyed, though that may prove tough. Pilot Pen Corp., for example, began endorsing the former Volvo Championships in New Haven, Conn., three years ago, but some still refer to it as The Volvo.

Indeed, teen sensation Venus Williams' first major title will always be referred to as coming at The Lipton, even after the name change.

"It will take many years of investment and good publicity and good tournaments for everyone to say they are going to play in The Ericsson the way they would The Lipton," said Bob Bashe, president of Millsport, a sports marketer.

The tournament was established in 1985 by Earl "Butch" Buchholz as the first mixed-gender tennis event created in 56 years. The allure of being able to watch both men and women play has made it one of the most successful tournaments in the tennis world.

Buchholz also acquired the Pilot Pen International in New Haven last year and brought a women's tournament there for the first time this year, also under the Pilot Pen banner.

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