Visa probably won't make the Opening Day lineup, but its pitch to become Major League Baseball's official card brand is likely to succeed.

San Francisco-based Visa U.S.A. has been talking with baseball officials since last fall, and although sources say a deal is near, the two parties do not expect to sign a sponsorship agreement before the season begins on April 1.

Major League Baseball has not had an official credit card sponsor since 1991, when its alliance with MasterCard International ended. James Andrews, vice president of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter, said Visa would pay $25 million to $50 million to become the official card brand.

At the same time, MBNA Corp. is waiting in the wings, prepared to sign a deal with the league to issue a Major League Baseball credit card.

Baseball is the only major professional sport that doesn't have a card sponsorship agreement with Visa, MasterCard, or American Express Co. Visa appears to be the lone bidder.

The appeal for Visa and MBNA is clear: Professional baseball is big business. In 1996, attendance at major league games was nearly 60 million - representing about $720 million in ticket sales, said Major League Baseball spokesman Ricky Clemons.

What's more, fans are big spenders when it comes to Major League Baseball merchandise. Financial World magazine pegged total merchandising and licensing receipts for the 1995 season at $61 million.

"If Visa gets this deal, they will have the edge in league sponsorships - football and baseball are the sports that Americans follow," said James L. Accomando, president, Accomando Consulting Inc., in Fairfied, Conn.

The run on major professional sports sponsorship deals began in 1995, when Visa hooked up with the National Football League. MBNA kept pace with Visa when it won the right to issue Visa's official NFL card.

American Express netted a National Basketball Association sponsorship in 1995, while MasterCard International cornered the National Hockey League. A year later, Purchase, N.Y.-based MasterCard announced sponsorships of Major League Soccer and the Professional Golfers Association tour.

Industry observers said MBNA may be holding off on issuing a card for Major League Baseball to prevent an ambush on Visa's marketing plans, and to wait to see how to brand the card.

"I think they are trying to iron out all the creases that complicate things, like what brand MBNA will carry," said Mr. Andrews of IEG Sponsorship.

Major League Baseball has had more marketing problems than other sports leagues, Mr. Andrews said. After adopting an every-man-for-himself mentality, teams have wrangled deals that have clashed with sponsors brought on by the league.

"Baseball is traditionally very decentralized, so it's prudent that they deal with all these issues now," Mr. Andrews added.

MBNA, based in Newark, Del., holds the lion's share of baseball affinity credit cards, representing 19 teams to date. A league card would complement MBNA's affinity programs.

Mr. Accomando said MBNA may hope that if they have the official card of the league and Visa has the official brand, both sponsors could conduct joint promotions.

Another potential benefit: When individual teams renegotiate their contracts, they might re-sign with MBNA.

But, said Mr. Accomando, the trend is going the other way. "Sports teams are breaking away from the league endorsements as opposed to coming on board."

MBNA is not the only issuer up to step up to the plate for Major League Baseball. Commerce Bancshares, Kansas City, Mo., issues a card for the Kansas City Royals, and Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, offers the Cincinnati Reds card. And although officials would not confirm it, BankAmerica Corp., San Francisco, is rumored to have its eyes on a card for the Oakland Athletics.

First Union Corp. said this week it is set to issue a card for the Atlanta Braves when MBNA's agreement with the team expires on March 31.

"Consumers don't care what association or bank sponsors a credit card," Mr. Accomando said. "But there is a lot of money and a lot of clout that goes along with being the official something."

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