SBJ/March 22 - 28, 1999/No Topic Name

Fleet wants national deal with MLB

Fleet Financial Group Inc. is in talks with Major League Baseball about becoming the organization's first official banking sponsor, which would make the sport the first of the four major leagues to have a national banking sponsor.

If named banking sponsor, Fleet would have the right to display the MLB logo in its promotional efforts and, perhaps more important, use the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, the bank's hometown, as a massive marketing platform.

MLB and bank officials would not comment, but experts estimated Fleet (NYSE:FLT) would need to pay tens of millions of dollars over several years to procure the MLB sponsorship.

"It is great for baseball and for the leagues because what you are seeing is the germination of a new major [sponsorship] category," said Fred Fried, executive vice president of Integrated Sports International.

Historically banks were never big enough to warrant a national sports sponsorship. Aside from BankAmerica Corp. (NYSE:BAC), which is a major Olympic sponsor, banks traditionally shied away from national sports marketing efforts. Local banks endorsed local teams and arenas, a practice that will continue. Fleet, for example, will still sponsor the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

But with the consolidation that has swept the banking industry the last several years, some banks are close to achieving a national scale. The merger of NationsBank Corp. and BankAmerica created a near-national bank. And Fleet is indicating with its MLB discussions and its recent agreement to buy BankBoston Corp. (NYSE:BKB) that it too may have national aspirations, experts said.

"They might make a very good move in pre-empting some other [banks] on a national level" with this possible sponsorship, said Michael Trager, co-founder of The Marquee Group unit Sports Marketing and Television International (SMTI), which sells sponsorships for MLB. "Baseball, because it ...[attracts] all demographics and the fact that baseball has made a remarkable comeback from a P.R. standpoint, the sponsorship would be a positive."

Credit card companies are the principal financial sponsors of the four major leagues. MasterCard International Inc. and MBNA Corp. (NYSE:KRB) are the official credit card sponsors of the NHL and MasterCard of MLB. Visa USA is an official sponsor of the NFL and American Express Co. (NYSE:AXP) of the NBA.

MLB recently named John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, another Boston company, as a financial-services sponsor. But none of the three other major leagues to date has a national commercial banking sponsor. Those leagues' credit card sponsorships do not preclude them from inking banking deals, though the NFL now only allows teams to sell banking sponsorships.

Because an MLB national sponsorship does not include any team rights, Fleet would be left with only the All-Star Game in July and the playoffs in October as events to make a mark on. Unlike traditional sponsorships, there would be few opportunities for signs and promotions at games during the 162-game MLB season.

There could be other options for Fleet, however, from naming awards, such as the Most Valuable Player, from distributing All-Star ballots in bank branches and from contests, said Larry Baer, chief operating officer of the San Francisco Giants.

"One of the challenges with an MLB sponsorship is how much you can do on a local level," said Bob Basche, president of Millsport LLC. "But MLB has become very sponsor friendly. In their desire to grow after the strike years, they are trying to make" the environment better for sponsors.

Fleet already has a tight banking relationship with MLB. The bank structured the league's innovative $405 million credit facility last year, which securitized media revenue.

The sponsorship talks could still fall apart, said a source, who noted the bank's agreement to buy BankBoston could hypothetically cause Fleet to rethink its marketing strategy.

"We are in negotiations, but no deal has been signed," said a Fleet spokeswoman.

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