SBJ/Nov. 1, 2010/Marketing/Sponsorship

Giveaways grow as the when and why evolve


NEWSCOM
Caps, like these plaid hats offered to Angels fans,
remain atop the giveaway list.

In their never-ending quest to lure fans to the ballpark, baseball marketers continue to aim for the head.

Caps and bobbleheads topped the list of items most frequently given to fans by MLB clubs for the second straight season, according to a SportsBusiness Journal analysis of teams’ 2010 promotional efforts. Along with free T-shirts, which ranked No. 3 on the list, these items have been the most popular giveaways since SportsBusiness Journal first started tracking MLB teams’ game-day promotions and handouts, in 2002.

But while the items at the top of the ranking have gone unchanged, the timing of and reason for the giveaways has shifted for many MLB clubs. The volatility of the nation’s economy has played a role in this change, but so too have pop-culture considerations as well as increased expectations of fans and sponsors for what a giveaway should accomplish.

Most frequent 2010 MLB
giveaways and promotions



 

In short, the key is making a connection.



‘A part of baseball’


According to team executives, it was about a decade ago when MLB clubs began to move away from items such as bottle openers and pencils as giveaways to what they call instead “high perceived value” gifts, such as bobbleheads, limited-edition caps or, perhaps most notably back in the late 1990s, Beanie Babies.

That high perceived value for the fans, however, comes with a high actual cost for the teams and their game-day sponsors. A bobblehead costs a club about $3.50 a unit; a reversible floppy hat costs between $4 and $5. Pennants and magnets, on the other hand, cost pennies.

When the economy soured in recent years, it not surprisingly slowed ballpark turnstiles and forced budget-conscious teams and promotional sponsors to adapt. Order sizes were reduced, so instead of a free ball being given to the first 15,000 fans at a game, maybe the first 10,000 fans got one instead.

But beyond that, the recession’s impact on the promotions business in MLB appears to have been minimal. High-profile items are still deemed important, even at their higher relative cost.

“We actually had more giveaways this season, not less,” said Wally Hayward, Chicago Cubs executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer. “And we continue to focus on unique items that have high perceived value.”

Executives at each of 10 MLB clubs contacted by SportsBusiness Journal said their clubs had decreased neither the number of promotional nights nor the budgets related to those dates over the past three seasons. Indeed, according to SportsBusiness Journal’s analysis of all 30 MLB teams’ promotional schedules, MLB clubs combined for 719 giveaway dates this season, a 16 percent increase over 2009 and a 25 percent jump compared with 2008.

“Promotions are as much a part of baseball as hot dogs and Cracker Jacks,” said Patrick Klinger, Minnesota Twins vice president of marketing. “We could have cut back this year, knowing we were going to draw well in the new ballpark [Target Field], but it has become an important part of our team’s culture.”

The Twins gave away nearly half a million items at the gate this season, slightly more than last year, including 5,000 of their eighth annual fishing lure, timed with the opening of the state’s fishing season, a quasi-state holiday, Klinger said.



Change in strategy

While the ultimate goal of every promotion is still to fill seats, the evolution from trinkets to high perceived value items has coincided with a change in scheduling strategy for MLB clubs. The “lift,” or the overall increase in attendance attributed to the promotion, is no longer just about trying to even out the attendance across seven nights of the week by making slow nights a little stronger. For both sponsors and teams, the activation element of the promotion is becoming more experiential.

“There’s more upside to taking a strong game and making it a sellout,” said Lou DePaoli, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “If you have a soft opponent on a Tuesday in May, you’re not going to do much, other than maybe a sponsor-driven ticket promotion.”

DePaoli developed a metric several years ago for measuring the effectiveness of promotions on ticket sales, a tool that helps sponsors maximize their activation plans. The Pirates stack all their premium giveaways on weekends. The club, for example, drew nearly 31,000 fans to PNC Park on Friday, Aug. 6, for the team’s lone bobblehead giveaway, an Andrew McCutchen doll, a 40 percent jump over the team’s other 12 Friday home dates and a 54 percent boost over the team’s other 80 home games overall.

Nearly every other club is now on a similar path, with bobbleheads providing the biggest boost. This past season, 66 of the 80 bobblehead nights across the league (or 82.5 percent) were held on weekends, double the percentage of just five seasons ago.

“Do you want to pack the house and have that fan experience, that buzz, of a sellout?” said Jay Deutsch, CEO and co-founder of Bensussen Deutsch & Associates, which produced more than 1 million MLB-licensed bobbleheads that were given away at major league ballparks this season. “You may already have 40,000 coming out on a Saturday night game and get a ‘lift’ of five or six thousand. And that whole connection gets extended long after they’ve left the game.”


Twins fishing lure

Teams realize that they may be giving up a few extra tickets sold by not giving away a premium item for a weeknight game, but they hope the weekend fans are leaving with a feeling that their entire evening, which included the top-notch giveaway, had a high perceived value. Additionally, weekend visitors tend to stay at the game longer — not having the school and work considerations that Monday through Thursday night games bring — and they typically spend more on concessions.

In Washington, D.C., the Nationals have opted to schedule many of their promotions on weekends and holidays and for games against popular opponents. The intent with their promotions is as much about getting the team’s curly “W” logo out on the streets and ballfields of the nation’s capital as it is calculating any measurable increase in attendance. As a result, the majority of the Nationals’ giveaways are premium caps and T-shirts.

“The more we are able to get a participative action from our fans in the branding process, the better it is for everyone,” said Nationals’ COO Andrew Feffer. “The fan is getting a higher perceived value by participating rather than simply getting a free item.”

The team distributed more than 300,000 logoed items across 25 dates last season, including 60,000 T-shirts during the Nats’ four-season-old T-Shirt Tuesday campaign. Attendance for the Nationals three bobblehead nights, which were all Saturdays, was about 48 percent higher than the 10 Saturdays that did not have a bobblehead giveaway and 57 percent higher than the team’s other 78 home dates.


DENIS BANCROFT / FLORIDA MARLINS
Clubs are trying to plug their promotions
into pop culture, as the Marlins’ vuvuzela
giveaway shows.

But when it comes to incorporating experiential marketing into promotional schedules, few teams have been as active as the Florida Marlins. Florida this season introduced Fiesta Friday, which included a pregame party at the ballpark’s open-to-the-public Strike Zone plaza area, with live music, player autograph sessions, radio broadcasts and a giveaway tied to an additional promotional effort for that day’s game. Then, after the game, the fans could return to the Strike Zone to meet the team’s entertainment troupes: the Mermaids, Manatees and Maniacs.

The club follows a similar template for its Super Saturday and its Family Sunday efforts, with the Sunday plans featuring on-site entertainment with Radio Disney. Sean Flynn, vice president of marketing for the Marlins, said it’s all about extending the fans’ association with the team, not just at the ballpark but throughout the year.

“The redemption level is always high,” Flynn said. “Folks are coming early, then staying into the fourth or fifth hour of the night. It’s our way of eventizing the game, and the event becomes its own brand.”

Across the state, Captain Morgan, an MLB partner, this year sponsored the Tampa Bay Rays’ weekly Friday Fests, which included food and drink specials, postgame parties, a fireworks display after each game, and a feature known as the Center Field Shuffle in which all fans were permitted to walk across the field and exit through Tropicana Field’s center-field gate after the fireworks.



Planning starts earlier


Planning for a season’s promotional efforts begins well before the new year hits. The Pirates, for example, have already completed their 2011 promotional schedule and will release the lineup to the public this week. These early initiatives give potential mini-plan ticket buyers time to scope out their favorite packages and give the club’s sales staff time to match sponsors with specific promotions.

DePaoli said the 2011 schedule release is about 60 days earlier than last season and 90 days sooner than five years ago. A decade ago, most teams released their schedules just before spring training.

“[It] gives us time to get the items through customs and check for errors,” DePaoli said. “But it also gives season-ticket holders a longer period to pay.”


Royals Silly Bandz

There are, however, risks involved with planning so far ahead, primarily the difficulty in predicting changes in player personnel. DePaoli recalls one incident that happened during his years with the Marlins in the 1990s. Midway through the 1999 season, the Marlins agreed to a trade that was to send Matt Mantei to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The deal’s oral agreement came on the afternoon of Matt Mantei Lapel Pin Night.

“The deal wasn’t ‘approved’ until the third inning,” DePaoli said, with a chuckle, “so by the end of the game, the fans had a collector’s item.”

Deutsch said examples like that are why clubs increasingly are content when giving a player-themed item on using the likeness of one of their retired stars.

Clubs banking on pop-culture fads — or trying to anticipate a fad — also run risks.

The Marlins, for example, in December scheduled Marlins Air Horn Night, courtesy of American Fasteners. The June 19 giveaway was scheduled to coincide with the FIFA World Cup, but by the time the game came around, the air horn, or vuvuzela, was being lambasted throughout the world as a stadium menace. The team had 15,000 of them, though, and Flynn said the team and the sponsor were happily committed to it — though as it played out, the ear-popping evening drew criticism from the players on the field.

“It was an idea that was planned in conjunction with a worldwide event,” Flynn said. “We’re an entertainment property. We monitor pop culture, and it’s our job to stay current. It was a Hispanic night theme, and we got more positive e-mails about this than any promotion I can remember. I consider it a success.”

In Kansas City, the Royals this season showed a nimbleness that allowed them to capitalize on the current Silly Bandz craze. The team reached out directly to Silly Bandz this spring, several months after the team’s promotional schedule had been released.

Mike Bucek, the Royals’ vice president of marketing and business development, said the club chose two featured designs — a Royals R and a Royals crown — because they were instantly recognized as part of the Royals’ brand and because they bounced back to their original shape fairly easily compared with more complex designs. Attendance for the giveaway Sunday, Sept. 19, with no other promotions taking place, was 17,803, well above the normal average for a late-season Sunday with the ballclub out of playoff contention.

Most frequent 2010 promotion/
giveaway sponsors

With a total expense of less than $2,000 for 16,000 bands, Bucek said the promotion was the club’s most cost-effective giveaway of the season. It also gave fans, particularly young fans, an item to keep them connected to the club after they left the ballpark.

To that end, several clubs now offer season-ticket holders the opportunity to upgrade their status to include, for a price, items the club gave away during the season. The Seattle Mariners, for example, will deliver the season’s entire collection of promotional items to your door for $90. The Twins have had more than 2,400 season-ticket holders pay $50 for a box of seven items, including the popular Minnie & Paul bobblehead — the hand-shaking characters representing Minneapolis and St. Paul across the Mississippi River — that was given out July 4. The Nationals provide one voucher per season-ticket holder that can be redeemed at the end of the season for any available giveaway item.

Said Deutsch, “Why do otherwise ‘normal’ parents freak out when they can’t get an extra bobblehead for their kid who couldn’t make it to the game? It’s because the items give you a connection to the team beyond the game itself.”

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