Weeks after Visa U.S.A. executives boasted of having nearly clinched an endorsement deal with Major League Baseball, MasterCard International has walked away with the contract.

MasterCard announced Monday that it won a multiyear contract for the rights to be official sponsor of America's national pastime.

The news seemed to send Visa, which had stated publicly that it expected to get the sponsorship, back to the dugout.

But a Visa spokesman said his company had declined the deal. "We are in a clear leadership position with regard to sports and event sponsorships," said Albert Coscia, vice president of marketing communications for Visa, "and ultimately we recognize that the best deals are the ones you walk away from."

The bank card associations have been jockeying for position in the lucrative race for athletic sponsorships, and baseball was one of the few major sports still up for grabs.

Visa has been heavily advertising its ties to the National Football League and the Olympic Games, and some industry observers said that MasterCard's sponsorship roster-which includes the National Hockey League and World Cup Soccer-seemed paltry by comparison.

"MasterCard's ability to snatch it away from Visa at the last minute is really quite significant," said Stanley W. Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates in Arvada, Colo.

"It is probably in some ways embarrassing for Visa," he added. "They gave a clear indication that it was theirs-just wait and see-while MasterCard in the meantime was working behind the scenes to get it done."

Nicholas A. Utton, senior vice president of U.S. marketing for MasterCard, said his company's negotiations with Major League Baseball were independent of any other company's. He said a window of opportunity opened, and MasterCard stepped through it.

"We negotiated quietly," Mr. Utton said, "and wanted the best company to win."

MasterCard said one thing that might have tipped the scales in its favor was its launching Tuesday of a long-awaited advertising campaign devised by its latest agency, McCann-Erickson, during the negotiations with Major League Baseball. (The association's new slogan is: "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard.")

MasterCard executives said Major League Baseball may have been impressed that the first spot featured a baseball theme. That ad debuted during Wednesday's fourth game of the World Series.

For months, it had looked as though San Francisco-based Visa was the top contender for the coveted sponsorship, which brings with it both the patriotic emotions many Americans feel toward baseball and the chance to market to its estimated 61 million fans.

As early as March, a spokesman for First USA Bank said four baseball franchise owners had asked that only Visa cards be issued for their teams because of "Visa's upcoming national sponsorship."

And as recently as last month, Michael A. Beindorff, executive vice president of marketing and product management at Visa, told American Banker: "We don't have an arrangement with Major League Baseball now, but if you ask me if we will ever have one, the answer is, 'We very likely will.'"

But the deal fell apart after more than a year of talks, said the Visa spokesman. "The Major League Baseball organization was unable to provide sufficient value to Visa's member banks and their merchants in return for the high price tag they put on the deal," Mr. Coscia said.

By winning the contract, Purchase, N.Y.-based MasterCard becomes the official affinity card and the preferred brand of Major League Baseball.

MasterCard will also have exclusive card rights to use Major League Baseball trademarks, including the World Series, League Championship Series, Division Series, and All-Star logos in advertising, merchandising and promotions.

At the moment, MBNA Corp. of Wilmington, Del., is the issuer for baseball's official cards-in both Visa and MasterCard brands.

A spokesman for MBNA said the card company has not decided whether existing Visa affinity cards for Major League Baseball will be converted to MasterCard.

William Daily, vice president of sponsorships for MasterCard, said the association expects to deliver a full marketing plan to baseball executives early next year, before the start of the 1998 season.

"Given the size and stature of Major League Baseball, we feel that our integration plans will include everything from advertising to point of sale promotions," he said. "Right now baseball is at its peak because of the World Series-but we just signed the deal."

Russ Schoper, a credit card consultant, said he thought MasterCard might have trumped Visa in terms of mass appeal: While both baseball and football have huge followings, baseball is the older, better established sport.

"This deal will help MasterCard very much, and if I were to pick one, I would rather have Major League Baseball than the National Football League," said Mr. Schoper, president of Business Developments International of Alpharetta, Ga.

But Frances Dale, president of Entandem of Sterling, Va., questioned MasterCard's ability to promote its baseball affiliation successfully in consumers' eyes. Given that MasterCard's advertising campaign is new and untried, she said, it might prove difficult for the company to capitalize on the sponsorship.

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