The World Cup Of `Ambush Marketing'

The official trophy is 18-karat gold and weighs 11 pounds. But to the 19 companies that have paid as much as $75 million apiece to be major sponsors of--and promote themselves during--the upcoming World Cup tournament, the real prize is exposure to billions of consumers. And the big spenders are jostling like burly fullbacks to protect their piece of the soccer turf.

Just look at MasterCard International Inc. It took long-distance carrier Sprint Communications Co. to federal court in March in a nasty dispute over which company could put the World Cup logo on its plastic card. Sound silly? Maybe. But even before the German and Bolivian teams line up on June 17 for the opening game in Chicago, the cup runneth over with corporate disputes. "You have to be tough, aggressive," says Mava Heffler, MasterCard's vice-president for promotions. "You do what it takes to protect your program."

LICENSE OVERLAP. Why? An average of 600 million people worldwide will watch each of the 52 games, the Cup organizing committee estimates--a huge audience that has attracted the crme de la crme of international marketers, including such heavyweights as Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's Corp.

But the organizers themselves are partly at fault for any strife between marketers: They've created a raft of often conflicting sponsorships. Worldwide marketing rights were licensed, for instance, to Canon Inc. for cameras and Fuji Photo Film Co. for film. But no accommodation was made for Fuji's disposable cameras, and Fuji eventually had to agree not to sell its cameras at World Cup sites. Alan I. Rothenberg, chairman of the organizing committee, says he approved selling sponsorship of the U.S. team to both Snickers and Continental Baking Co.'s Hostess cupcakes, but only after defining Snickers as the official snack food and Hostess as the official baked good.

Some disputes aren't so easily resolved. Rothenberg said he quietly dropped Walt Disney Co., which had tentatively agreed to provide opening and closing ceremonies, when Disney wanted to "give me Mickey and Chip 'N' Dale," and Rothenberg wanted more soccer in the show. Disney still will stage a kids' soccer tournament after the July 17 final. Rothenberg also had to mollify Anheuser-Busch Cos. The beer company was angered when Rothenberg told stadium operators staging Cup regional matches he was considering limiting or banning alcoholic beverages to avoid fights. Rothenberg says now he'll leave it up to the managers, and Anheuser officials agreed to accept that solution.

The World Cup's convoluted hierarchy has added to the confusion. International "official sponsors" are selected by Lucerne-based ISL Marketing, while Rothenberg's organizing committee in Los Angeles chooses the less exclusive "marketing partners." The MasterCard-Sprint lawsuit partly resulted from this setup: MasterCard won international rights, while the U.S. group signed up Sprint. Both companies wanted to use the World Cup logo, but the federal court ruled in favor of MasterCard. Sprint says it will appeal.

As the games approach, the conflicts will no doubt escalate. World Cup officials say they'll do their best to protect sponsors from unauthorized "ambush marketers" by going to court to stop those who trample World Cup licenses. Officials, for example, recently filed suit against Italian card maker Panini. Panini intends to sell cards of soccer players in the U.S., even though Upper Deck Co. paid $7 million for the exclusive rights.

Although no company will own up to ambush marketing, many nonsponsors are suddenly using a lot of soccer themes in their marketing. Pizza Hut Inc., for one, has signed up soccer superstar Pele, a MasterCard official spokesman, for ads outside the U.S.

Then there's shoemaker Reebok International Ltd., which lost out to rival Adidas for the World Cup sponsorship. Reebok plans $2 million worth of ads on Spanish-language telecasts of the games to the U.S. and is allowing soccer players it has signed to appear on both Sprint Corp. telephone credit cards and on Wheaties boxes. Ambush? "We don't use the `A' word," says Peter R. Moore, Reebok's vice-president of global product marketing. "Reebok is doing nothing that involves the official World Cup trademark. We're just utilizing our players in a regular promotion." Regular? Hardly. When much of the civilized world turns its eyes to a mega-sporting event, there is nothing regular about it.

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