SBJ/October 18 - 24, 2004/SBJ In Depth

Top giveaways in sports

Nod in agreement: For a dependable giveaway, you still can’t do better than a bobblehead.

MLB, NBA and NHL teams handed these out 53 times in their respective most recent seasons and saw attendance at those games rise an average of 12.5 percent over the single-game average for those teams. This was the fourth-best increase of any giveaway item, and easily the best among items given away by 10 or more teams, according to research by SportsBusiness Journal.

The three items associated with the largest attendance increases — jack-in-the-boxes (20.7 percent), travel mugs (19.8 percent) and replica rings (14.3 percent) — had smaller sample sizes, between four and six teams. But they increased attendance in 79 percent of the games — suggesting they might merit wider use.

For bobbleheads, the attendance boost was lower than last year’s: In 2003, the dolls accounted for a 15.3 percent increase. And in 2002, they boosted attendance 16.7 percent.

And their use is going down. Bobbleheads, which were rediscovered roughly a decade ago, were given away 69 times by MLB teams alone in 2003 and 85 times by MLB teams in 2002. This year, the 53 bobblehead giveaways across the three leagues were the most for any single item. They provided attendance boosts at 42 of those games, over the team’s season average. Of the 11 games where attendance didn’t beat the average, five were NBA games.

Brooks Boyer, vice president of marketing for the Chicago White Sox and until this summer a Chicago Bulls marketer, is still happy with bobbleheads. “I like them for their collectibility,” he said.

Boyer sees action bobbleheads refreshing the category in the coming years. Recent items included Ichiro Suzuki’s pre-pitch routine, LeBron James in action and Esteban Loaiza in mid-pitch, and Boyer expects to see more, as they make the items better conversation pieces. “[White Sox closer] Shingo Takatsu’s [sidearm] Frisbee pitch would be a great bobblehead,” Boyer said.

Then there’s minibobblehead dolls. These were given away another 17 times, by four teams in all, three MLB and one NBA. But results were mixed. They provided a 4.1 percent jump overall, but most of that came from three magical nights for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, when Tino Martinez, Jose Cruz Jr. and Toby Hall minibobbleheads provided attendance boosts of 50 percent or more over the average crowd.

In all, however, minibobblehead giveaways were greeted by lower-than-average crowds at 10 of 17 dates. Apparently regular bobbleheads are mini enough, and the mini ones don’t have the perceived value of their full-grown brethren.

Florida Marlins fans received free rings.
Context is another way to spruce up bobblehead giveaways — and giveaways in general. The Philadelphia 76ers are working on a promotion that will combine sports, Hollywood and the bobblehead. They’re talking to 20th Century Fox about holding the national press party for “Fat Albert: The Movie” at their Dec. 12 game against Milwaukee, a 2 p.m. start.

Fat Albert’s inventor, Bill Cosby, is a Philadelphian, and Fat Albert wears a 76ers jersey in the movie. The team has dubbed the date Fat Albert Day and already has a 5,000-item Fat Albert bobblehead giveaway planned for that afternoon’s game.

“Everyone who’s seen the bobblehead, especially our players, is going nuts over the deal,” said Dave Coskey, president of the team marketing and communications group for Comcast-Spectacor, the Sixers’ owner.

Bobbleheads aside, marketers at teams and promotions companies think there’s a slight trend away from pure collectibles, including other types of figurines, nesting dolls and the like, and toward items that are more interactive — that you either use or play with.

“People don’t want to just have it or put it on the shelf — or worse, in a drawer,” said Mylinda Viola, president of Chicago-based Gameday Giveaway. She has coordinated several giveaways of dashboard memo pads with team and local ESPN Radio partner logos on them, and the rather mundane item has shown some staying power, based on her feedback. With more people on cell phones in cars, a sturdy memo pad comes in handy.

At the same time, Viola arranged a 50,000-piece windshield sun shade giveaway with the Anaheim Angels and their ESPN Radio partner, and the item — which cost about $1 wholesale — has fetched up to $15 on eBay since the giveaway.

Jack-in-the-box giveaways haven't been frequent, but they've been effective.

Useful items claimed four of the top 10 spots in this year’s SportsBusiness Journal survey of promotional items. Travel mugs increased attendance by 19.8 percent at six dates for MLB and NBA teams, the second-best increase of any item. Backpacks, notebooks and clocks had the 7, 8 and 9 spots respectively, with increases of between 8.9 percent and 9.7 percent, mostly for combinations of MLB and NBA teams.

And these items appeared seemingly overnight: None of the four was used for a giveaway last year, according to SBJ’s survey of MLB teams.

“Fans are becoming a little more finicky, wanting something a little more cutting-edge,” said Aaron Moszer, assistant general manager for the minor league Aberdeen (Md.) Ironbirds, the Cal and Bill Ripken-owned team that sells out every game. “We’re looking into things that incorporate a player or mascot in a new way, or that a kid can really play with once he gets home, even if it’s a clever toy car. He’ll get a little more mileage out of that than a bobblehead he just puts on the shelf.”

Rounding out the top 10 were stuffed animals (No. 5) at 11.3 percent over four dates, puzzles (No. 6) at 10.8 percent over five dates, and the broad category of figures (at No. 10) — such as statuettes and figurines — with an 8.3 percent jump in 22 dates.

If the top 10 were made up largely of useful items and collectibles like bobbleheads, figurines, dolls and jack-in-the-boxes, the second 10 reads like a promotional items hall of fame.

Fans pick up Joe Nuxhall bobbleheads after entering Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.
Batting helmets (with a 7.2 percent jump over average attendance), rally towels (6.8 percent), caps (6.2 percent), balls and pucks (5.7 percent), wristbands (4.9 percent) and pennants (4.8 percent) make up Nos. 11 through 16, respectively, and miniballs and photos are 18 and 19, at 4 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. Bangers, clappers, thundersticks and beach towels tied at 20, with a 3.2 percent increase.

The minibobbleheads, mentioned above with a 4.1 percent increase, were in the 17th spot. Jerseys, visors, floppy hats, pins and T-shirts are prominent between Nos. 21 and 27, garnering between a 2.3 percent and 0.6 percent increase over average attendance.

And here’s a corollary to the old saying, “There’s no free lunch”: There are free lunch boxes and coolers, but they won’t help attendance much. Coolers and lunch boxes rounded out the list of promotional items associated with attendance increases, but only by 0.2 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively.

Maybe coolers are too easy to come by these days, and maybe nobody’s taking his own lunch. It’s hard to say exactly what will resonate with fans. Viola’s husband, Dave, still has the Chicago Bulls shaving kit he got in high school.

Coskey tells about the time he told his 13-year-old son that some hats the team was giving away cost just a bit more than a dollar apiece. His son replied, “So people will pay $36 to get a one-dollar hat?”

“It made me realize we’ve reached the point where we have to create a sense of urgency, or of high perceived value around the promotions we do,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to generate the level of interest we want.”

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