SBJ/November 26 - December 2, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Two strikes against MLB for marring Series with ads, contraction talk

In the mood for some early holiday shopping? If Major League Baseball is on your list, then I have a suggestion for the perfect gift: an image adviser.

Baseball doesn't need merely a public relations consultant or a publicist. Rather, the sport is in desperate want of some outside counsel that will honestly inform baseball's brass how low the image of the sport has sunk.

If I had written this column a month ago, perhaps the most egregious image faux pas committed by the league would have been its allowing Fox to plant those hideous virtual billboards behind home plate during the World Series. Now, that's still an offense worthy of note, but MLB has super-sized its image problems by injecting the notion of contraction so quickly after a remarkable World Series.

Let's take a look at each of the malapropos moves by MLB.

First, it should be clearly stated and understood that I'm bullish on advertising in sports venues and have no issues with ads behind home plate, along courtside or on dasherboards. I could even make a good case in support of ad tattoos on athletes.

Still, there are a few moments in sports when advertising isn't appropriate, and one of those is the World Series. The NFL and NBA understand that championship games aren't the place for field-level advertising. Executives of these leagues aren't shy about selling space on just about anything that moves, but when it comes to their prize event, they know it should be virtually ad-free and free of virtual ads.

I know MLB didn't put those ads behind home plate, but they did agree to a contract that gave Fox the rights to sell advertising during the early innings and to promote Fox shows on the signs in later innings. This distinction proves that MLB understood something about the prominence of their event.

But in reality, there is no difference between a Budweiser logo and a promo for "King of the Hill." Neither one should be the backdrop to one of the jewels in the American sports scene. I hope that whatever technology was used to position the ads can digitally erase them so future generations watching the heroics of Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez or Luis Gonzalez won't wonder who Ally McBeal is.

While there will be vigorous debate over the issue of contraction, one thing is certain: The timing of such talks stinks. Perhaps MLB couldn't stand the chance to bask in the glory of a compelling World Series. Even before it could finish cleaning up after the celebration in Phoenix, MLB polluted its image with contraction discussions.

As I've stated previously in this space, I think contraction is the best solution to a messy problem. But couldn't there have been a better time to have such talks? The luster the sport gained from the World Series was quickly tarnished. At a time when talk should have focused on the place in history for the 2001 World Series, discussions were dominated by the reality of closing down two franchises.

The practice of building an image for a product like MLB is a combination of theory and science. Ad campaigns, catchy tag lines and uniform designs can be tested and refined so that they ultimately will yield an effective result. But there's a lot of image building that just can't be tested.

Many subtle and seemingly insignificant things contribute mightily to how a product is perceived. MLB needs to realize how damaging the presence of ads and the timing of talks can be to the image of brand.

Alan Friedman (alanf100@excite.com) is the founder of Team Marketing Report.

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