Europay International said it has renewed the sponsorship agreement that links the MasterCard and Eurocard brands to the European soccer championships.

Eurocard-MasterCard will be one of the 14 official sponsors of Euro 2000, the quadrennial competition for national teams that will culminate in a 31-match finals tournament June 10-July 2, 2000, in Holland and Belgium.

Europay, which is partially owned by MasterCard International and has a close marketing relationship with it, has been supporting European soccer since 1992, the year the regional card association was formed from the merger of the old Eurocard and Eurocheque organizations.

Eurocard-MasterCard signs and promotions have been visible at many major events through the relationship with UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations. They include the annual Champions League club competition and give MasterCard "official card" status in each case.

Executives of MasterCard, based in Purchase, N.Y., have described sponsorships as one of their pillars of marketing strategy, and soccer has the marquee position. MasterCard poured much money and energy into the World Cup last year in France. It also used the Euro '96 finals in England to raise awareness of a new tandem-branding system for Eurocard and MasterCard.

Mava Heffler, MasterCard's senior vice president in charge of sponsorships, said unaided consumer awareness of the MasterCard name in the United Kingdom virtually doubled between 1995 and the end of Euro '96. "We wouldn't have been able to do that with advertising," she said.

"Football sponsorship increases card issuance, usage, and acceptance," said Marc Dumortier, Europay's head of brand marketing and sponsorship. "Banks can improve customer relations by offering cardholders exclusive and highly attractive ways to get closer to their teams with initiatives ranging from sweepstakes to match tickets to affinity cards."

Soccer is to MasterCard what the Olympics are to Visa. Soccer is the most played and watched sport in the world, but it still lacks the Olympics' popularity in the United States, which remains the biggest credit card market. Domestically, Visa has locked up other deals with the National Football League, Nascar, and thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, while MasterCard has Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, among others.

MasterCard claims to get more bang for fewer bucks than Visa spends on its Olympic sponsorship, which began in the last four-year cycle with a $40 million rights fee. Ms. Heffler said an organization typically must spend two to three times the baseline amount to take full advantage of the license.

The Olympics have recently become complicated by the scandal over payoffs by the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the 2000 Winter Games. Visa and most other corporate supporters are staying the course.

Speaking to a press seminar in Paris last year, Ms. Heffler said MasterCard and Visa's competing sponsorships benefit the entire banking industry by providing access to top sports properties that seem to increase continuously in public attention and promotional value.

Europay says soccer's attraction lies in its unmatched television viewership. The 1998 World Cup had a cumulative audience of 37 billion. To take advantage of the visibility, Europay sent out 70 million promotional statement inserts in 24 countries and issued 122,000 soccer affinity cards. MasterCard members worldwide issued about 1.5 million affinity cards, a third of them bearing pictures of Pele, the retired Brazilian superstar who has been a MasterCard spokesman since 1991.

"France '98 captured the hearts and minds of people the world over, and with Euro 2000, the 'people's game' will again bring that excitement and passion to Europe," said John Stuart, deputy general manager and head of communications at Europay in Waterloo, Belgium.

"Our continued sponsorship of the event does more than enable our member banks to tap into that emotion," he said. "It means we have a vital role to play in making the event happen."

The estimated Euro 2000 cumulative TV audience is seven billion, on top of 1.2 million attending in person.

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