Is Baseball's Marketing Czar Headed For The Showers?

Support for Major League Baseball's Greg Murphy is slipping

Major League Baseball's embattled marketing chief, Gregory B. Murphy, is getting kicked out of his office--literally. Now the only question is whether he will be kicked out of the organization, too.

The former Kraft Foods Bakery Cos. CEO will soon vacate the corner office at baseball's Park Ave. headquarters--once reserved for the commissioner. There's still no full-time commissioner, but on July 22, the organization named former Toronto Blue Jays chief executive Paul Beeston chief operating officer, its first in five years. He'll be the top exec in New York, while Acting Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig will keep running the game from Milwaukee.

The naming of Beeston, a friend of Selig's who is respected by both owners and players, increases the likelihood that Selig will one day become commissioner, observers say. And it has reignited long-simmering rumors that Murphy is on his way out. "The sun will come up tomorrow. You will pay taxes this year. And Greg Murphy is history," says an associate of Selig. "I absolutely flat guarantee it--because Bud told me so."

LOST GROUND. Of course, that's what unnamed baseball executives have been saying for months. Murphy remains unmoved. And, he asserts, his prospects have improved with the arrival of Beeston, who he predicts will end the sniping. "That will stop all the sideshows and get everyone focused on what's important," Murphy says.

But if Murphy is ousted, it would signal the owners' retreat from the marketing initiative they hired Murphy to launch after Major League Baseball's disastrous 1994 strike--and to take back ground lost to basketball and football over the course of decades. The plan was to lift a page from pro basketball's book and convince owners to band together to market the game, not just their teams.

From the outset, Murphy clashed with owners. In November, they rejected a proposed pact with Nike Inc. and Reebok International Inc., furious that Murphy hadn't consulted with them on its terms and unhappy with what their take would have been. Then, on the same day in March that Murphy unveiled his marketing plan, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner upstaged him with a renegade Adidas-Yankees deal.

If nothing else, Murphy clearly underestimated what it would take to get Major League Baseball--a collection of 30 clubs--to agree on a single marketing effort. Now, he concedes, meeting his goals "will take longer than I naively expected when I first started." Indeed, he didn't come close to his target of snagging $100 million in annual sponsorships by the end of last year. But deals are now pending with Anheuser-Busch, Visa, and Quaker Oats' Gatorade that would bring Murphy close to that figure.

Murphy has had some successes. All his hawking has increased other marketers' interest in the game and boosted the fees that local clubs have been able to get for their own deals. "There's a newfound spirit of cooperation and level of importance put on marketing of the industry versus individual teams," says Florida Marlins President Don Smiley, a director of Major League Baseball Enterprises, of which Murphy is CEO.

None of that has stopped the backbiting, though. And Selig's public support for Murphy couldn't be more tepid. Asked about Murphy during a conference call with Beeston and reporters on July 24, Selig noted that creating a separate division for baseball's marketing arm was the correct move, adding, "Greg has been its first president, and other than that, there is no appropriate comment."

Meanwhile, baseball's comeback from the nadir of '94 seems well in hand. Attendance is nearing the record levels it reached before the strike, and stars such as Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and Toronto's Roger Clemens are electrifying crowds around the country. At the same time, an owners' committee, led by Jerry McMorris of the Colorado Rockies, has hired headhunters Heidrick & Struggles Inc. to cobble together a list of roughly 25 candidates for commissioner, according to one owner. Depending on whom they pick, Beeston's tenure in that Park Ave. corner office could turn out to be short-lived, too.

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