SBJ/January 21 - 27, 2002/Marketingsponsorship

MasterCard goes to the replay in latest MLB promo

In 1989, MasterCard exploited the devotion of fans to our national pastime with a balloting contest that had them select Major League Baseball's most historic moment. This year, MasterCard will leverage its five-year, $81 million MLB sponsorship with a promotional campaign that asks fans to vote for baseball's most memorable moment from among 25.

Do we sense a theme here? Maybe even a Yogi aphorism, like "It's déjà vu all over again?"

Thirteen years ago, Hank Aaron's record-setting 715th home run was selected MLB's top moment. This writer was among those who attended a gala in New York where Aaron and other baseball luminaries were feted by MasterCard, which also took the opportunity to schmooze its top banks.

So much of Major League Baseball's appeal is based on nostalgia, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. But it does seem a bit, dare we say, derivative? While we've had a few new thrills, such as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds establishing single-season home-run marks, it will be interesting to see if fans have changed their minds after 13 years.

MasterCard's 1999
All-Century Team, which
ended in an All-Star ceremony
at Fenway, set the bar high.

The challenge for MLB, which, we're told, brought the platform to MasterCard rather than vice versa, is updating the marketing vehicle. Certainly, it will fit seamlessly into MasterCard ad agency McCann-Erickson's now iconic "priceless" campaign. Any TV ad this time would be more than the 1989 competition received, which was largely a PR exercise. (And, of course, the Internet wasn't used the last time around.)

MLB also plans to put its weight behind the program and have events at all 30 teams. It is trying to get other sponsors involved, which is why the word "priceless" probably won't be in the title of the yet-unnamed promo. The balloting is scheduled to take place during the second half of the season so as not to conflict with another MLB voting platform, the All-Star Game.

Still, besting a promotion that's more than a decade old should be relatively easy. MasterCard and MLB also will have to top their 1999 All-Century Team, another balloting promo, whose payoff was one of the memorable moments in All-Star history: All of the game's stars at the time gathered with the top ballplayers of the 20th century in homage to Ted Williams at Fenway, his home park.

If Aaron wins the election this year, the continuity will be complete, since the career home-run leader appeared in one of the ads touting the All-Century Team promo. This year's game is in Milwaukee, where Aaron began and ended his MLB playing days.

OUT OF THE LINEUP: While we're on the subject of baseball, two sponsors are not returning to the Opening Day roster of corporate partners: Toys "R" Us and Conagra. Toys "R" Us, which signed on in 1999, has shifted strategy from trying to become a destination for sporting goods to investing what were marketing dollars into redesigning and remodeling its 1,609 stores. Thus, sponsorship took a back seat to improving retail presentation in the chase for marketing dollars.

Conagra, which had fewer rights than Toys "R" Us as sponsor of MLB's Traveling Road Show attraction, was concerned about the return on investment it received from the program. Without corporate sponsor support, sources said, the Traveling Road Show will likely be converted to an attraction supported by MLB licensees, principally video game hardware and software marketers.

CANADIAN RULES: Collegiate Licensing Co. has tapped former NHL and U.S. Olympic Committee licensing chief Fred Scalera to head a new division, still nameless, that will develop non-collegiate licensing properties. The Canadian Football League will be the first property headed by the new entity, which is seeking both sports and entertainment. The CFL is outsourcing its licensing program, which has been largely venue-based, to the new CLC division. CLC has stuck pretty much to its collegiate business recently. In the past, it ran licensing for the PGA and the 1996 Olympics, and it was the last licensing agency for NASCAR before the stock car circuit took its licensing in-house in 1996.

COMINGS AND GOINGS: Lee Berke has joined Strategic Sports Group, New York, as executive vice president. He'll work to develop and sell properties, a complement to the firm's core business of corporate consulting. Berke was most recently chief marketing officer of the WUSA and previously worked at SFX and MSG. ... Former MasterCard sponsorship chief Mava Heffler to senior vice president marketing at Chicago-based Thomson Learning.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@amcity.com.

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