American Express Travel Related Services Co. and Visa U.S.A. are on opposite sidelines as the Dallas Cowboys' dispute with the National Football League escalates.

Visa and the NFL say American Express shouldn't even be at the game. Earlier this year, Visa secured the rights to be designated the NFL's "official payment card" through 2000.

But the Dallas team's owner, Jerry Jones, announced last week that American Express was the official charge and credit card of Texas Stadium. Terms were not disclosed other than to say it's a multiyear, multimillion- dollar arrangement. "The announcement does not change the fact that Visa is the official credit card of the NFL," said Chris Widmaier, the league's corporate communications director.

"We're not going to change anything we're doing because of the Texas Stadium thing," said Michael Beindorff, executive vice president of marketing and product management for Visa U.S.A.

Mr. Jones has been thumbing his nose at the rest of the professional football establishment. He has also struck sponsorship deals with Nike and Pepsi-Cola that conflict with the NFL's Reebok and Coca-Cola relationships.

The American Express announcement came almost three weeks after the NFL filed a $300 million lawsuit challenging the unilateral Dallas sponsorships. American Express was not named in the suit. Sources said the American Express deal was negotiated prior to the suit but not publicized.

Calling attention to its NFL ties, Visa has been running a humorous television commercial depicting members of the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers singing karaoke at a Tokyo restaurant - filmed while they were in Japan for a preseason game.

Visa also plans to participate in a Thanksgiving weekend "Call for Quarterbacks" promotion on the Fox network. A spot featuring 49ers quarterback Steve Young will tout a grand prize that allows one person to be an "honorary backup quarterback" at Super Bowl XXX in January.

Mr. Beindorff of Visa suggested that the American Express deal - which Jim Andrews, vice president of IEG Sponsorship Report in Chicago, said could be worth $1 million a year - could "signal a crack in the armor of the NFL."

Historically, he pointed out, the NFL has sought sponsorships that benefit the entire league. The money from 35 corporate sponsors is divided among all 30 teams.

Texas Stadium, not a team but owned by the Cowboys, has broken the mold by signing with non-NFL sponsors. "The stadium has signed up high-profile sponsor agreements that are in no way in violation of the NFL rules," said Rich Dalrymple, director of public relations for the Dallas Cowboys.

American Express' deal will give cardholders special ticket access to sporting events, concerts, and other stadium activities. Also, American Express' charge and credit cards will be the only ones accepted for season football tickets.

American Express cards have been accepted for concessions and merchandise purchases since 1989. No other cards are accepted, Mr. Dalrymple said.

American Express said Dallas is one of its 10 largest cardmember markets. A million people pass through the Texas Stadium turnstiles each year.

"It would be naive to think this type of action doesn't have a detrimental effect," an NFL source said.

"It adds to consumer confusion if American Express does any kind of promotion (about the sponsorship) especially outside the Dallas area," said Mr. Andrews of IEG. The more sponsors there are associated with football, he said, the less consumers identify with just one.

Visa U.S.A. and American Express have tangled in the sporting arena before. Visa, a worldwide Olympics sponsor, has claimed numerous "ambushes" by its New York-based charge card rival. In the last winter games in Lillehammer, for example, American Express ran ads that said, "You don't need a visa to come to Norway."

Conversely, Visa ads have spotlighted places that "don't take American Express."

Mr. Andrews said the latest clash "fits the pattern of two companies wanting to take a bite out of each others' exclusive sponsorships."

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