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Speedy Recovery

Fans lash out over Internet and phones, sponsor reacts quickly

By Scott Becher
FoxSportsBiz.com

November 9, 1999 9:00 a.m. ET

Game 2 of the 1999 World Series offered MasterCard exec Chris O'Neill a "priceless" moment all-right, although not exactly the kind suggested by his company's advertising campaign.

Let me explain.

You see, this game marked the pinnacle of MasterCard's sponsorship of Major League Baseball's All Century Team balloting. The pre-game show would feature the announcement of the top 25 players of the past 100 years, determined by 2.5 million fan ballots.

As MasterCard International's Vice President of Global Public Relations, O'Neill skipped out of the stadium early to make a morning meeting the next day back in New York.

He watched the game on TV from a nearby hotel, and he liked what he saw: Visible MasterCard podium signage ("very pleased") and MasterCard verbal mentions ("great recognition for us").

Then came NBC Sports reporter Jim Gray's unexpected ambush of Pete Rose.

"I thought the Pete Rose interview was unfortunate given the timing," O'Neill said. "It didn't take away from the glow of the program, but it certainly was a sour note to end on."

It was only the beginning.

Back at the office the next day, O'Neill was quickly pulled out of his scheduled meeting.

Fans had inundated MasterCard's phone lines. The company's Web site and e-mail inboxes were "en fuego" and so were baseball fans, reaching out to MasterCard and voicing their passionate displeasure with the Jim Gray interview.

"I can't tell you how many times people told us they were crying while they were watching the program," O'Neill said. "But they were clearly outraged by the Pete Rose interview."

In all, nearly 5,000 fans sought out MasterCard to vent their frustrations.

"We felt an obligation to immediately let these fans know three things: We had nothing to do with the interview, we don't condone it, and we thank fans for their enjoyment of the overall program," O'Neill said.

To get the message out, MasterCard issued its own press release. It said, in part: "...We strongly believe that Mr. Gray owes an apology to the millions of fans that tuned in to see what was meant as a celebration of baseball and its greatest players. We urge Mr. Gray to issue an apology swiftly, to avoid tarnishing the last World Series of the century."

Gray eventually offered an apology.

O'Neill said Major League Baseball completely supported MasterCard's efforts. The company felt compelled to showcase their press release on its Web site home page.

They were making a statement and wanted everyone to take note.

How refreshing.

MasterCard paid handsomely for the right to receive months of favorable exposure as the presenting sponsor of MLB's All Century Team promotion. It could have stopped there and done no more.

But, at its own initiative, MasterCard acted quickly to remain an advocate of the fan throughout the unexpected controversial ending of this mega-promotion.

And O'Neill's work is not yet finished.

He is determined to make sure every fan that called or e-mailed MasterCard and left a return address will receive a personal letter from the company's Chairman.

"We want to let the fans know that we appreciate them. It has nothing to do with whether they are a card holder," O'Neill said.

"The program allowed us to look back and celebrate the athletes who gave us priceless moments, perfect support for our "Priceless" ad campaign," O'Neill said. "We had hoped to reach out to baseball fans and connect with them in a very special way."

If O'Neill was even the slightest bit unsure of whether MasterCard had connected with fans, he now had his answer. The company's World Series celebration recovered from an unexpected Jim Gray curve ball thanks to some skillful improvisational marketing.

"I don't know if we would have gotten this kind of (fan) feedback any other way... it was an informal, unintentional focus group study," O'Neill said.

And MasterCard clearly was paying attention.

More FoxSportsBiz columns by Scott Becher