SBJ/19980525/This Week's Issue

Teams add Beanie Babies to lineups

The Beanie Babies craze that has swept sports promotion was born in the bowels of John McDonough's Chicago home.

McDonough, the Chicago Cubs' vice president for marketing and broadcasting, was cleaning the basement with his eldest daughter, Colleen, when he found that the room was overrun with the multicolored bean-bag animals that she and her two sisters collected.

Among them, McDonough noticed a tiny brown bear.

"Which one is this?" he asked.

"That's Cubby," Colleen said.

"Cubby?" McDonough asked again, his wheels turning. "Honey, can I take this to work?"

Baseball met Beanies, and a romance began.

The Cubs gave away authentic Ty Beanie Babies at two games last season, drawing crowds of 37,958 and 38,849 and generating a wave of interest across baseball and other sports.

Already this season, 13 major league clubs have announced Ty Beanie Baby promotions, with more — perhaps as many as 25, according to several marketing directors — expected to join the parade by season's end. Five NBA teams gave away Beanies. Oakbrook, Ill.-based Ty Inc., which is highly secretive about its dealings, is in negotiations with hockey, the NFL and the WNBA.

BeanieMania has swept baseball with such momentum, it was a Beanie Baby teddy bear named Valentino that was responsible for a gate of 49,820 at Yankee Stadium on May 17, the afternoon that David Wells authored a perfect game. The proof: the Yanks drew 16,606 on May 12 for the portly portsider's previous start. Valentino will join Wells' glove and a ticket stub on display at Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a rare tribute to a promotional toy that has succeeded where the game itself often has failed — beckoning children and families back to the ballpark.

"When [McDonough] contacted us, we decided to do it on a trial basis and see what the reaction would be," said Lori Tomnitz, a publicist with Ty. "It turned out to be a phenomenal success for both of us. From there, word spread."

For the uninitiated, Ty is the company that makes the version of bean-bag toy that has become a collectibles sensation in the last four years, with some fetching as much as $4,000 on the secondary market. The Cubby that the Cubs gave away last year is selling for $250 to $300 at Internet sites. The commemorative Daisy the Cow Beanie they gave away earlier this year in tribute to the late Harry Caray already is up to $500.

Within days of the initial Beanie promotion, the Cubs received inquiries from most major league teams, McDonough said. Feeding off that interest, Ty sent Beanie catalogs to the 29 other major league teams in December, offering to provide the toys at a uniform price — between $2 and $2.50 each, according to sources, though Ty won't confirm the price.

The stampede was on.

"We really, really wanted to do it last year," said Michael Dietz, senior director of marketing and operations for the Detroit Tigers, who will give away a tiger Beanie, "Stripes," on Sunday. "I've had Stripes in my office ever since [the Cubs] did it. I've been waiting and waiting."

With almost three weeks to go before the promotion, the Tigers had already sold more than 16,000 tickets to their Beanie day. Advance sales for other dates were at 10,000 or lower.

"There's definitely been a spike," said Dietz, adding that the Tigers likely will put on a second Beanie promotion later this season. "It's going to be huge. I would've loved to have done 81 of them."

So hot is the promotion that even Chicago White Sox marketers have tipped their hats to their crosstown brethren. The Sox will give away as many as 20,000 black-and-white Blizzard the Tiger Beanies on July 12, tying the toy to their team colors. They, too, reported an advance sales spike of about 5,000 even though they hadn't promoted the occasion yet.

"There's such a demand for these things in our area, it would've been crazy for us not to do it," said Rob Gallas, the White Sox senior vice president for marketing and broadcasting. "It's a big craze and it skews to our market. If you get the kids into the ballpark, you get the parents too. And if you make the kids happy, now maybe you've got a fan for life."

Even the clubs that aren't on Ty's Beanie wagon are capitalizing on the phenomenon, giving away knockoff bean-bag toys. Though they lack authenticity and the associated value as a collectible, they, too, are boosting ticket sales.

Going with a knockoff allows clubs to customize the toys to suit their purposes, something that Ty refuses to do. When Ty balked at creating a custom Beanie for the Boston Red Sox, the club went to Twins Enterprises, a Major League Baseball licensee that agreed to produce a bean-bag version of Wally the Green Monster, the Red Sox mascot.

"We really wanted to promote our own character," said Larry Cancro, the Red Sox's vice president for sales and marketing. "And this will do that for us. If we had a real Beanie Baby, it'd be even better."

Because of the value associated with the Ty name, clubs have searched feverishly for links between the toys and their own mascots, colors, players and, as a last resort, baseball in general. The St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees both are giving away Stretch the Ostrich. Batty the Bat will be the prize at promotions by the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers. The Arizona Diamondbacks have Hissy the Snake; the Kansas City Royals, Roary the Lion; the Oakland Athletics, Peanut the Elephant.

The Minnesota Twins couldn't find a natural link, so they allowed fans to choose between three possibilities by voting on the Internet or by phone.

"Beanie Babies is to bean-bag animals what Kleenex is to tissues," Tomnitz said. "People understand the value of using our logo."

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