Diving headlong into the big business of sports, the major bank card groups have their hands on two of the world's hottest tickets.

Now the MasterCard and Visa associations are racing -- against time and each other -- to prove the worth of their sponsorship investments in the two biggest global sporting events.

While they are spending tens or hundreds of millions of member banks' dollars to be associated with the events, the returns on the investments may be far less tangible to individual banks.

An Expensive Proposition

Yet the stakes are rising both inside and outside the bank card community, as shown in the escalating costs of everything from Olympic television contracts down to local promotional rights like those being sold by the Atlanta Olympic committee for 1996.

Visa International is the veteran at this game. When the summer Olympics come to Atlanta, Visa will be completing its third four-year cycle as one of the event's elite handful of global sponsors.

Sports industry sources estimate that Visa paid $40 million just for the rights -- perhaps 15% more than it paid in 1992 -- and may spend another $100 million on related advertising and promotions.

But Visa is really running two marathons -- one for Atlanta, and one to Lillehammer, Norway, next February, when the winter Olympics begins a new "off year" schedule between summer games.

Soccer Play

And so, 1994 will prove both an Olympic trial for Visa, and the first full test of MasterCard International's sponsorship of the quadrennial World Cup soccer tournament, to be played in nine U.S. cities next June and July.

With Visa getting the inside track a decade ago for the Olympics' bank card and travelers check sponsorship, MasterCard gradually built up an involvement with international and regional soccer federations.

It paid an estimated $15 million for rights to what is considered the biggest of all single sporting events, and may spend another $75 million on advertising and promotions.

Direct Benefit Seen

Visa officials are certain their Olympics deals have paid off. The San Mateo, Calif.-based association claims the 1992 sponsorship boosted card usage by 9.5%. Both Visa and MasterCard want to do something similar in 1994-96.

For MasterCard, the soccer sponsorship requires a major selling job. It is a first for MasterCard, and the World Cup's first visit to the United States, a country that is only beginning to warm to the world's No. 1 sport.

The excitement is building. In a recent road show, MasterCard marketers gave a sneak preview of their plans to 500 Washington-area merchants, who were moved to enthusiastic applause by an action-packaged video.

"You all are in for the treat of your lives," David Jensen, the Washington director for World Cup 1994, told the crowd. "There's nothing like World Cup soccer."

Incidentally, he projected, World Cup soccer fans are expected to spend $244 million in the capital region.

Playing the Host

MasterCard wants to be known as the host payment system.

"They are welcoming the world to America," said Jim Andrews, editorial director of IEG Sponsorship Report, a biweekly newsletter in Chicago covering sports, arts, and event marketing. "They're very aggressive in terms of getting out their message."

"There are very few vehicles for this type of exposure -- the Olympics and World Cup are two of the top", Mr. Andrews said. "You really can't get much bigger in terms of creating global awareness."

Bankers and sports industry consultants say the sponsorship investments are solid. Experts disagree on which association has the better deal.

MasterCard Given Edge

In general, MasterCard is seen as having the edge internationally because of soccer's vast popularity outside the U.S. Visa capitalizes more on American's love affair with the Olympics.

"From a practical standpoint there's a much higher awareness for the Olympics than for the World Cup," said Cynthia Graham, president and chairman of Barnett Banks Inc.'s Barnett Card Services Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla.

Ms. Graham said the World Cup has become " a much bigger deal" by coming to the United States. "I think it's a good competitive response to Visa's Olympics," she said.

"In terms of recognition, both are big events, but World Cup is bigger," said Rob Prazmark, president of Twenty-First Century Sports Inc., a consulting firm specializing in global events that works with both MasterCard and Visa.

Strategically, Visa and MasterCard are poised to capture new cardholders overseas as the domestic credit card market becomes saturated.

U.S. growth is "hard to come by without cannibalizing someone else's share," said card industry expert Robert Hammer, chairman and chief executive officer of R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, Newbury Park, Calif. "Internationally, the growth rates are double digits."

Television exposure is a key part of the strategy. A cumulative audience of 26 billion people watched World Cup matches from Italy on television in 1990, compared with the 15 billion viewers of the Barcelona summer Olympics in 1992. (The winter game's audience is considerably smaller.)

Perhaps more important to the associations, their bank members, and merchants, are the millions of visitors who will come to the United States with credit cards, debit cards, and travelers checks at the ready.

Spending Money

Atlanta Olympic officials are expecting two million foreign visitors, ad those who buy the 7.5 million event tickets will spend more than $1 billion.

World Cup officials estimate one million visitors will come to the United States next summer for the soccer championship. Some 3.6 million ticket holders are expected to spend $4 billion.

With its logo appearing on two billboards along each soccer field's boundaries, MasterCard will have a leg up on Visa in television exposure, said Mr. Prazmark, the events consultant. Researchers predict 32 billion viewers will see the Master Card signs for an average of seven minutes per 90-minute match.

Such billboards are not allowed at the Olympics' competitive venues.

Kick from Pele

The marketing combat also comes down to individuals.

MasterCard has hired Pele, the legendary Brazilian soccer star, as World Cup spokesman. He will be in MasterCard television, radio, and print advertisements next summer.

Pele, whose fame in dozens of countries is comparable to Babe Ruth's in the U.S. alone, is also making personal appearances -- so far in 14 countries and 25 U.S. cities. He will be in the Washington-Baltimore area next month for a MasterCard promotion at a mall.

"MasterCard's coup of getting Pele was very smart," said Mr. Hammer, the investment banker and consultant.

MasterCard is also sponsoring the U.S. National Soccer Team

Visa U.S.A., which has taken an individual event sponsorship of the "USA/Visa Decathlon Team," signed three of that sport's most famous competitors -- Bruce Jenner, Dave Johnson, and Dan O'Brien -- to serve as spokesmen. They will be featured in print and television advertising, repeating the 1992 theme, "Visa is everywhere you want to be."

For the winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Visa is using ice skater Brian Boitano and skier Julie Parisien as spokespeople for its "Pull for the Team" fundraising campaign. Visa will use the stars in television advertising beginning Oct. 1.

"For the summer games, we're really going to let loose," said John Bennett, senior vice president of Visa. "We'll just be more evident, more involved. It's the biggest thing in a decade in the U.S."

Strategies Differ

Visa and MasterCard are taking slightly different promotional approaches. Some have characterized Visa's as thematic and MasterCard's as practical.

As it did with the previous two Olympics, Visa is taking advantage of the well-known Olympic logo of five rings, topped for domestic purposes by "USA."

"When you put the five rings on a Visa card or advertising theme," Mr. Prazmark said, "the results are phenomenal."

"The |USA' over the rings is as definitive as anything in business. It is extremely positive," said Mike Moran, a United States Olympic Committee spokesman. "That is why so many [sponsors] keep coming back." Among them are Coca-Cola and Kodak.

One of Visa's goals is to increase the percentage of consumers who know about the Olympic sponsorship. The goal for 1996 is 75% consumer awareness. "If we achieve that," Mr. Bennett said, "it will probably be the highest awareness of any sponsorship achieved."

To build business, association members are urged to participate in fund-raising campaigns, hold contests for free trips to the Olympics, and use Visa's Olympic logo on merchandise.

Visa has a program for the winter games called "Olympics of the Imagination." In October, 11- to 13-year-olds from the United States, Canada, and Norway can submit drawings or paintings to depict how they envision the Olympics games 100 years from now. Twenty-five winners will get expenses-paid trips to Lillehammer.

Promotions under the Olympic umbrella paid off for Visa and its card-accepting merchants in 1992. A survey by SRI International in London showed that 35% of cardholders will buy Olympic-related products. "They fell they are personally contributing to the Olympics," Mr. Prazmark said.

Visa officials say they are committed to winning a greater share of the travel and entertainment market, going head-to-head against American Express Travel Related Services Co. They see the Olympics' exclusivity as an ideal vehicle.

Getting Serious

MasterCard, meanwhile, wants to build brand awareness, raise its stature as an international payment system, stimulate card usage, and provide business opportunities to member banks.

MasterCard is holding seminars, such as the one in Washington last month, and promotional events in the other host cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, New York/New Jersey, and Orlando.

"They have been one of the most aggressive [sponsors] from a promotional standpoint," said Jeffrey R. Bliss, senior vice president of World Cup marketing, Fairfax, Va.

"The World Cup is cutting across the company," said Mava K. Heffler, vice president of U.S. promotions at MasterCard. "We're using it as a platform in our global merchant-acceptance areas. It's really being used by every aspect of the company. That, too, is a measure of its success."

Piggyback Strategy

The World Cup '94 logo -- a soccer ball shooting through an American flag -- may not be as well known as the Olympic rings. To offset this, MasterCard has chosen to focus instead on how card issuers can piggyback on the world's largest sporting event.

"It's not just a theme," MasterCard's Ms. Heffler said. "We're actually doing something with it. We're turning it into programs that are tangible and meaningful to merchants and cardholders. It's not just something you hear about on the airwaves."

MasterCard is using its World Cup sponsorship in conjunction with the ongoing MasterValues discount-shopping program. In it, MasterCard sends out promotional materials, advertisements, and inserts to its members.

John F. Mullady, senior vice president of First Omni Bankcard, Millsboro, Del., is a big fan of the tie-in approach. The credit card division of First Omni Bank and trememdous success in the first quarter with MasterCard's "Smart Money" campaign, he said.

"For us it was a home run," Mr. Mullady said. "We want to do the same thing World Cup."

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