The onset of Fall has always been a bittersweet time for me. I’ve always been a warm-weather person, and, while I certainly welcome the start of the football season, there are few things in life that I find truly more relaxing than a steamy hot summer day at a baseball game. Call me old school, but the idealistic vision of baseball as America’s past time evokes Norman Rockwell-like allusions of kids delighting at mascot antics, post-game fireworks, dollar hot dog nights and the standard fare of promotional give aways—from caps to car magnets to a never-ending collection of bobbleheads.
From a sports marketing perspective, promotional days serve multiple purposes. They offer incremental activation opportunities for sponsors to affix their brands to what is hopefully a coveted keepsake, and they hopefully entice incremental walk-up attendance. Baseball, in particular the minor league variety, has enjoyed a storied past of innovative promotional days that at their best were creative and compelling, and at their worst, push past the boundaries of good taste. Many involve clever metaphors around player names, or national celebrities. There were a host of anti-LeBron James-themed promotions after his “decision,” including a “Back-Stabbers” night at one minor league park. In the midst of the scandal surrounding former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, two minor league teams wore prison uniforms. When a University of Florida basketball coach announced his departure to take a similar position in the NBA, only to reverse course, a Florida team held “Billy Donovan Waffle night,” complete with the breakfast fare and a money back guarantee for those fans who later decided that the game wasn’t worth the price of admission. So, as we transition into Fall sports, let me reflect and provide a list of some of the most memorable promotions of the recent and not so recent past:
Vuvuzela Night: These kazoo-like horns had their 15 minutes of fame, as a droning and incessant buzz, that served as the background soundtrack for several Latin American teams in World Cup Soccer. The Florida Marlins (prior to the Miami rebranding) sought to seize on this phenomenon by giving out the instruments to those in attendance. The result for unsuspecting television viewers was a surreal and distracting game that sounded like a scene from an attack of the killer bees type movie, meeting the infamous Cleveland Indians vs. New York Yankees “Bug Game” during the 2007 ALDS.
Disco Demolition Night: No list of historic promotions would be complete without paying homage to this poster child of the genre. In the summer of 1979, the legendary Bill Veeck and the Chicago White Sox blew up a crate filled with disco records, on the field, in between games of a double header with the Tigers. A riot ensued, and the Southsiders wound up forfeiting the night cap of the doubleheader.
Robinson Ca-Gnome: A number of teams have instituted clever promotions that play-off of the names of players and other clever metaphors. This season, the Tampa Bay Rays hosted “Moore Cowbell night,” paying homage to the pitcher, the legendary SNL skit and the Tropicana Field custom of ringing cowbells during rallies. In AA Trenton, the Thunder last year honored one of the Yankees few home grown products by leveraging a metaphor that intertwined the second baseman’s name with the inexplicable recent trend of player gnome give-aways. It was irreverent, yet memorable. My ca-gnome is proudly displayed at the front of my personal bobblehead collection.
Mets Sleep-Over: Growing up in New York, I always have found the Mets to be more family friendly and promotionally clever than their cross borough counterparts in the Bronx. Given the aura and positioning of the Yankees, the Mets wonderfully personify the more “small market” and approachable positioning that often goes hand in hand with outside the box promotions. In my youth, my first opportunity to walk on a major league field was for the Mets’ annual end-of-season banner day parade. In 2013, the team has taken that memory creating experience one step further with a kids’ sleep-over in the outfield at Citi Field. Young fans first watched the Mets away game on the Jumbotron, before being tucked into their sleeping bags by Mr. and Mrs. Met. If this doesn’t build lifetime fan loyalty, what will?
Bobblelection: As a research guy, my list of memorable promotions is topped off by a brilliant and entertaining approach that the independent league Sioux Falls, S.D., Canaries deployed in the summer of 2008 during the height of the Presidential race. How I wound up at this game is another story for another time, but the promotion is my all-time favorite. Upon entry to the game, fans received another ticket with a number on it. Throughout the first few innings of the game, the team called the entire crowd, in numbered batches, to promotional booths set up on the main concourse. When called, fans would choose between a John McCain or Barrack Obama bobblehead. At the end of the promotion, a winning candidate was declared. Who would have thought political polling had infiltrated America’s pastime. Post script, I learned that the Canaries’ owners had interests in multiple minor league teams, and that the “bobblection” had occurred across the country, and correctly predicted the outcome of the real election. That’s research and promotion at its most brilliant.