The old ball game catches more than flies.
In the early 1930s, Brooklyn clothier Abe Stark took some unwanted ad space in Ebbets Field and turned it into a sideshow. HIT SIGN, WIN SUIT, read the billboard, which stood about 4 feet high and cost $200 for the entire season. Versions of the story differ, but most agree Stark didn't have to give away many suits - just the occasional pair of slacks to right fielder Carl Furillo in appreciation for all the line drives he intercepted. What Stark did do is spawn a new kind of advertising - what most people refer to today as "engagement," as if it were something new.
Of course, it's easy to overlook the significance of what Stark did. The retailer's approach to in-stadium advertising was seen mostly as a gimmick in the coming decades, occasionally reproduced (remember the HIT BULL, WIN A STEAK sign from Bull Durham?) but rarely improved upon, and certainly never adopted on any mass scale. For most of the last century, advertising at the game meant a giant logo on the scoreboard, or maybe sponsorship of a halftime show. It's only in recent years, as a wave of next-generation ballparks are built across America and the price of maintaining a sports franchise soars higher than a homer off the bat of Barry Bonds (and seemingly on the same kind of juice), that advertisers have again started offering their own brand of in-stadium entertainment. And it's changing how Americans experience a ball game.
Today, fans at AT&T Park in San Francisco can take a slide down a giant Coke bottle when they tire of watching the Giants play. Attendees of a D.C. United game in Washington's RFK Stadium can play video games in the Volkswagen Garage if soccer isn't their thing. And if you have $6,500 to spare and a little foresight, you and 35 friends can reserve the swimming pool at Chase Field, brought to you by Riviera Pools, and lounge in comfort as you root root root for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Such diversions comprise the new American ballpark experience, in which the game on the field is hardly the only game in town. "You can't depend on winning to take care of everything," says Cullen Maxey, senior vice president of corporate partnerships and marketing for the Diamondbacks. "Our philosophy is that we can control everything but the outcome of the game itself. The idea is to build something that, even if we lose a heartbreaker, people leave entertained and feel good about the entertainment dollars they spent last night."
In other words, if they don't win, maybe it isn't such a shame. Which is exactly the attitude team owners want fans to adopt. "In the old days, you'd draw a million [spectators per year] and that would be a good year. But that doesn't pay the bills anymore," says Stan Kasten, president of the Washington, D.C. Nationals. "These days you need 2 to 3 million to get by. You need more than hard-core fans, more than people who are willing to sit in their seats and watch nine innings of baseball."
After relocating in 2005 to D.C. from Montreal, where they were known as the Expos, the rechristened Nationals had no stadium, no fan base, and no chance of making it to the play-offs any time soon. And they weren't going to raise the money needed to field a winning team by relying solely on the drawing power of a losing one. So when construction began on a new stadium, the organization was sure to build a park that could accommodate more than baseball.
Building sponsorship opportunities into the new stadium was "top of mind from day one," Kasten says. "One of the first things we did was make a change in the construction drawing to move one bay of concessions so we could have space to build the Miller Scoreboard Bar, which became the anchor of a whole strip of bars and gathering places for the nightlife crowd."
Visitors are also greeted with a phalanx of 13 PlayStations when they enter the stadium (thank you, Sony). Select fans can relax in the PNC Diamond Club or the Lexus Presidents Club. More sponsored areas are under
negotiation now, Kasten says. "I think people think it's a phenomenal place, and they're waiting for the performance on the field to catch up," he says. "But in the meantime, they know coming to the ballpark will be a great time regardless of what happens on the field that night."
And the phenomenon is hardly limited to baseball. At Washington, D.C.'s RFK Stadium - where the Nationals played as they waited for their new stadium to be built - soccer team D.C. United has struck a partnership with Volkswagen of America whereby the car company maintains an actual two-car garage out of bounds on the field. There, fans can make custom T-shirts, play Xbox games and, yes, check out the latest VW models. The Baltimore Ravens have managed to monetize tailgating with the Ravens Walk, a strip of eateries and beverage stands between the parking lot and the stadium, sponsored by a slew of restaurants and breweries. Even the Arena Football League, a 21-year-old enterprise that seems poised for growth after inking broadcasting agreements with ESPN and ABC, is giving one lucky fan at each game a chance to kick a field goal if he signs up for a Discover card.
All of which begs the question: What do the fans think? Ask executives of the teams themselves and they'll tell you they hear few complaints, though all acknowledge initial concerns about backlash. Staci Slaughter, senior vice president of communications for the San Francisco Giants, says concerns about the Coke slide at AT&T Park disappeared as soon as the stadium opened. "People were like, 'My God, you're putting this huge Coke bottle in left field - people are going to go nuts!' We opened it up and people just love it."
Doug Hicks, vice president of communications for D.C. United, says fans were sanguine about having a branded garage on the field. "Our fans are soccer-savvy, and they know what it takes to be a big-time club."
Of course, not everyone agrees. C.J. Sullivan, host of an online sports talk comedy program called Visitor's Locker Room and a recurring "fanalyst" for Sirius Radio's college football coverage, called the current state of America's ballparks "a near Normandy Invasion of marketers."
"The ads and gimmicks are so intrusive, it's as if [Major League Baseball] thinks the sport itself is too boring to engage fans," he said by e-mail. "In their view, no one wants to watch two small-market pitchers out-duel each other, so let's just build a water park to keep the fans engaged. These places even look like amusement parks as you drive closer, with rides and giant Coke bottles being the first thing you see over the horizon. Immediately, your kids - as though you are going to Disney World - start nagging about which rides they want to try first."
Sullivan is surely not alone. For every family playing Wiffle Ball at St. Joseph's Future Field during the seventh inning of a one-run Diamondbacks game, it's a safe bet there is another fan in the stands grumbling about the commercialization of the game. And the sagging U.S. economy could put a dent in the trend, according to Darin David, an account director with sports marketing agency Millsport. "Things might change with the economy," he says. "We're almost due for a downturn on the sponsorship side as companies start pulling back budgets."
Until then, he says, it's best to sit back and enjoy the ride, even if it does take you through a giant wooden Coke bottle. "Right now it seems that anything they can throw out there, people will take."