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For Forum, Coke Sponsorship Is No Longer the Real Thing


Coca-Cola Co. launched a Shaq Attaq on the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, saying it will no longer sponsor the team because its newly signed star, Shaquille O'Neal, endorses Pepsi.

The move is the latest in an epic competition to quench the thirst of sports fans. PepsiCo Inc. fired a noisy salvo last fall when it edged Coke out of Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Coke fired back by signing Cowboys star Troy Aikman.

Now Coke is taking another shot. Its decision affects not only the Lakers but also the Los Angeles Kings and signage and beverage rights at Great Western Forum, where the teams play. The five-year deal, which expired Saturday, was worth more than $1 million a year to the Forum and the teams.

It isn't known whether Pepsi will pick up the sponsorships, which allow the company to use the Lakers' and Kings' logos in local promotions. In response to questions Tuesday, Pepsi said it was in discussions with the Forum about a possible deal but had nothing to announce. A Forum representative did not return calls.

Sports marketers said Coke's decision is not surprising, given O'Neal's popularity and the contest between Coke and Pepsi. They said O'Neal's pitches for Pepsi would probably have drowned out Coke's sponsorship of the team.

"Shaq is so enormous," said Brian Murphy of the Connecticut-based Sports Marketing Letter. "Coke is simply saying that it doesn't want to subsidize him."

Coke spokesman Rob Baskin cited O'Neal's appearances in Los Angeles on behalf of Pepsi as activities that "confuse fans about which product has a relationship with the team. . . . One could argue that would be ambush marketing."

According to Forbes magazine, O'Neal takes in $17 million a year from endorsement deals with Reebok, Kenner Toys, Pepsi and Pepsi subsidiary Taco Bell. He stands to receive $120 million over the next seven years as part of his Lakers contract, signed in July.

Sports marketers said there may have been other factors involved in Coke's decision. They said the company may believe it has enough sponsorships in Southern California, since it has deals with the Clippers, Dodgers and the Mighty Ducks.

Though Coke is no longer sponsoring the Lakers, it can use the team's logos in national promotions as part of its sponsorship deal with the National Basketball Assn.

As a National Football League sponsor, Coke is in a similar situation in Dallas, where Pepsi is the local sponsor. Pepsi is paying $40 million over 10 years to be the official sponsor of Texas Stadium.

Given Coke's pullout, it is doubtful Pepsi would reach as rich a deal with the Forum. Murphy said Pepsi may not even be interested, since it already has Shaq.

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