Not Always Coca Cola

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LOS ANGELES: Gain a star center, lose a soft-drink sponsor. That was the trade the Los Angeles Lakers made in signing Shaquille O'Neal. Since O'Neal is a spokesman for Pepsi in his spare time, Coca-Cola has decided to end its five-year sponsorship of the Lakers, since in the Atlanta firm's view, O'Neal represents the fox in the Coke chicken coop. "There was nothing to prevent Shaq from pulling out a Pepsi in the locker room during an on-camera interview," said a Coca-Cola spokesman. In fact, that's almost what O'Neal did at the press conference announcing his $123 million contract with the Lakers. With a Reebok banner behind him (for another Shaq sponsor), O'Neal told the media all he wanted to do after signing his contract was, "Have fun and drink Pepsi." The incident highlights the hotter sponsor wars in professional sports lately, with players, leagues and teams each looking for a cut of the financial pie. Last year, Pepsi and Coke battled over the Dallas Cowboys, when Pepsi bought exclusive concession rights in Texas Stadium. Coke, as an exclusive NFL sponsor, maintained the rights to the Cowboys name and logo, while Pepsi was the drink of choice at Cowboy games. Given O'Neal's star-power and obvious willingness to mention Pepsi at every available opportunity, Coke could not find an acceptable compromise with the Lakers. -- Josh Dubow