SBJ/July 17 - 23, 2006/SBJ In Depth

Ready. Aim. Fire! Hot dog cannon the bomb at ballparks

Hot dogs have been coupled with baseball nearly as long as grass, but the epiphany that resulted in wieners being routinely launched into the audience is only a decade old.

The Phillie Phanatic has been launching hot dogs
into the stands for more than a decade.
Philadelphia’s Hatfield Quality Meats gets either the credit or the blame for this particular form of fast food, in which hot dogs are shot from a pressurized launcher into the audience, where fans wrestle for them with an ardor normally reserved for foul balls.

“It’s become a prestige thing to catch one,” said Kim Burgess, senior director of marketing for the Kansas City Royals, whose Slugger mascot has been launching dogs into the far reaches of Kaufmann Stadium at every game for the past five years, as part of Schweigert Foods’ team sponsorship.

“We’re always looking for things that attract young and old and there are no age limits on this; everybody loves hot dogs and everyone loves the idea of shooting something a long way.”

Perhaps because it’s slightly inane, hot dog lift-offs are usually left to mascots. Tom Burgoyne, the Phillie Phanatic since 1994, recalls the whole thing started as a way to … er … launch a kids brand: Phanatic Franks. They were smaller, sweeter and softer than Phillies Franks. And they were in need of a gimmick. It was around the time that slingshotting T-shirts into crowds was getting popular.

“Someone decided shooting them into the crowd was the thing to do,” Burgoyne said.

Hatfield’s engineers got right on it — eventually developing a carbon dioxide launcher that could shoot dogs a few hundred feet. Looking to add some corporate ID, the engineers designed a wiener-shaped case with the company’s logo on the side. The 1996 season opened in Philadelphia with airborne hot dogs.

“It went over instantly,” said Burgoyne, who dons a chef hat and apron (on top of his Phanatic costume, naturally) about once every series to launch dogs from a second-generation wiener cannon mounted on his ATV.

The cannon can launch a sausage 250 to 300 feet. Upper-deck shots are common and, while no one has hit a ball out of Citizens Bank Park in its first 2 1/2 years, the Phanatic has launched a dog over the right-field roof and onto the concourse.

“There’s no way I thought I’d be doing this for 10 years,” the Phanatic laughed, “but people just don’t get tired of it.”

It’s not a bad marketing tool, either. “Everyone just goes nuts the first time they see it,” said Phillies National Sales Manager Rob MacPherson, “and it works well for Hatfield, because it gets people thinking about hot dogs at a place where they are readily available.”

Doug Verb’s promotion company, ActionSports America, built its reputation running giant T-shirt and jersey promotions. Still, Verb knew he had something when Hatfield allowed him to sell and market subsequent hot dog launchers.

An appearance with Eagles mascot Swoop on a “Monday Night Football” telecast generated considerable interest. Verb demonstrated the launcher at the 1997 winter baseball meetings, but its $12,500 price and its size held him back. Eventually it was shrunken to something that can fit on the back of a mascot — and to a more manageable price of $6,500 to $7,000.

Verb said he’s sold 40 to 50 since then, mostly to clubs, including the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and minor league franchises such as the Salt Lake Stingers, Tacoma Rainiers and Montgomery Biscuits. He’s also sold them to barbecue and sausage manufacturers.

“This isn’t something I’m getting rich off of, but it’s proved to be a great tool to engage fans,” Verb said. “Everybody wants to touch something from the field.”

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