SBJ/July 18-22, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Star deficit may bring changes for MLB’s midsummer classic

The 2011 MLB All-Star Game became as much defined by who wasn’t there as who was, creating headaches for Major League Baseball officials and sponsors and likely rule changes in future years.

The high-profile absences of numerous stars, most notably the New York Yankees quartet of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera, due to injury or personal choice, helped sink the TV audience for the game to an all-time low of 11 million viewers. During the week, league executives were continually on the defensive amid mounting scrutiny on whether the midsummer classic has lost its appeal to players.

A league-record 84 players were named either an All-Star initially or later as a roster replacement.

“To say the players don’t care is absolute nonsense,” said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who in particular came to the defense of Jeter.

Still, several prominent and popular American League pitchers such as Sabathia, Detroit’s Justin Verlander and reigning Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez of Seattle were declared ineligible to play due to a new league rule prohibiting pitchers throwing on the Sunday before the All-Star Game from being in the game. Both Selig and Michael Weiner said last week that that provision will likely be revisited.

Ratings for the vital and baseball-crazed New York TV market, in particular, dropped 18 percent from a year ago to a local mark of 10.0, undoubtedly driven primarily by the absence of Jeter, the game’s most marketable star and fresh off his 3,000th career hit, and Rodriguez. Each had been elected by fans to start for the American League.

“If you are directly tied to balloting in whatever form, players pulling a no-show has to leave you somewhere between frustration and anger,” said one marketer with strong MLB ties.

But Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business, said he did not hear appreciable grumbling on the topic from league partners, and Firestone, sponsor of the in-stadium portion of All-Star Game fan balloting, had no complaints.

“Sure, you want to have the best players there, but we were happy and the customers we were entertaining in Phoenix were thrilled,” said Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone/Firestone vice president of consumer tire marketing. “No one in our circle felt cheated.”

ACTIVATION ACTIVITY: MLB’s revamped sponsorship department has completed a spate of renewals, including a one-year “placeholder” extension of Bank of America’s rights, which date to 2004. Given the dramatic changes in the banking business set in motion by the recession, the TARP bailouts of financial institutions, including BofA, and new regulation that inevitably followed, it will be interesting to see what kind of deal it will take to bring the company back on more than an interim basis.

“With all the changes we’ve had from the regulatory standpoint, it is harder than ever to zero in on [return-on-investment],” said Charles Greenstein, BofA senior vice president of sponsorship marketing. “We expect to have something done [with MLB] by year’s end, but it has to be the right mix of assets to reflect how much has changed.”

In the new business area, a wireless sponsorship deal remains a goal, complicated by MLB Advanced Media’s ownership of the digital rights space for the sport. By many accounts, Chevrolet had the most impressive and ubiquitous activation in the downtown area around Chase Field, with its test track and numerous booths offering test drives of its Traverse, Equinox, Malibu, Silverado, Tahoe, Camaro, Volt and branded Cruzes, available as de facto taxis.
TERRY LEFTON / STAFF (2)
Chevy owned the Phoenix streets, while Coke machines (right) became Pepsi banners.

“We weathered a storm with Chevy, gave them a break when they needed it, and they have come roaring back,” Brosnan said.

To say the mood of Steve Tihanyi, General Motors general director of marketing services, is improved is perhaps the ultimate understatement. Two years ago, GM was in bankruptcy and “we were focused on which of 8,000 sponsorships we were going to cut,” Tihanyi said. “The good news is we cut 60 percent and our product mix is very strong.”

Pepsi launched an extension of its “Field of Dreams” creative for the second half of the season, in which an entrant can win the right to play a team of MLB legends. Local Pepsi marketers reported strong retail results from a “Power of One” Frito-Lay/Pepsi tie-in with Phoenix-area locations of Fry’s, Safeway, Albertson’s, Bashas’, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and CVS.

Surprisingly, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership distributed free water in the stadium area from secondary brands such as Crystal Geyser and Sparkletts as opposed to league sponsor Pepsi’s Aquafina brand, especially since Aquafina produced more than 100,000 All-Star Game-branded bottles. A Pepsi official said the partnership had the budget to distribute only 10,000 bottles.

Meanwhile, Coke versus Pepsi battles played out again in amusing fashion. A complex ownership arrangement in and around Chase Field has Pepsi and Coke vending machines next to each other, but during the All-Star Game festivities, the Coke machines were covered up with Pepsi branding.

NORTH OF THE BORDER: Defending MLB home run champ Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays entered the All-Star break again leading the league in homers. The former 20th-round draft pick from the Dominican Republic has gone from a record-setting five MLB team rosters in 2004 to garnering a record 7.45 million All-Star Game votes this year. Yet because Bautista plays in Canada, his endorsement opportunities have not grown in accordance with his on-field stature or contract, which reached new heights with a five-year, $65 million extension signed last winter.
But now that’s beginning to change, too.

Bautista’s on-field representation, Richmond, Va.-based Proformance, has two marketing agents touting the slugger: Alex Radetsky of Radegen Sports Management and Reed Bergman of Playbook Inc. So far, there are a pair of new six-figure deals: an exclusive memorabilia deal with Toronto-based AJ Sports World, which normally focuses on NHL players, and a three-year pact with Booster Juice, a Blue Jays sponsor that is the Canadian equivalent of Jamba Juice. MLB and ad agency Hill Holliday are also said to be prepping a new Bautista ad, as part of MLB’s Epic series, that is set to debut in the season’s second half.

On the equipment side, Bautista is with New Balance for footwear, Franklin for batting gloves, Wilson for fielding gloves and Marucci for bats, but those rights are up after this year, so a head-to-toe equipment and apparel deal seems likely. Bergman said he’s also exploring a media deal while Radetsky is pursuing key auto, financial and video game categories.

Bautista was eliminated in the first round of the Home Run Derby, but he made the defensive play of the night in the All-Star Game, a catch of a liner off the bat of Atlanta’s Brian McCann that ended with Bautista sliding into the right-field wall.

“Jose has put himself in a position where off-field matters have to be addressed, and he’s let us know that,” said Proformance managing partner Jeff Beck with a laugh.

KANSAS CITY ON THE CLOCK: The Kansas City Royals took their turn as next year’s All-Star Game host club, sending a 48-person contingent to Phoenix to shadow Arizona Diamondbacks and MLB staffers, a group that included a mix of team, political and economic development officials.

The All-Star Game is a big deal for any small-market MLB club, but perhaps no more so than in Kansas City. The Royals have had just one winning season in the last 17 years, and with the neighboring NFL Chiefs without a playoff win since 1993, Royals officials called the All-Star Game perhaps the biggest national sports event to ever hit town. An early hub of the NCAA men’s basketball national championship, Kansas City has not hosted a Final Four since 1988 and does not have an indoor facility large enough to bring that event back.

“I don’t think there’s been a sports event in Kansas City that has had as much media attention as the All-Star Game will get,” said Kevin Uhlich, Royals senior vice president of business operations. “And when you also think about the international exposure the All-Star Game now gets, this will be a massive deal for us. It will totally take over the city.”

With Kauffman Stadium separated by several miles from downtown Kansas City, the layout of All-Star Game events will somewhat resemble Anaheim last year. And to that end, the Royals want to revive the All-Star charity run successfully operated in Anaheim and in St. Louis in 2009, but shelved this year in part because of the extreme Arizona summertime heat. Also possibly revived is the outdoor charity concert staged in St. Louis and the year before in New York.

“The run, I think, is a natural to bring back in our town,” Uhlich said. “And I have to admit, I’m really looking forward to the Home Run Derby and seeing balls going out into the fountains.”

The logo for the 2012 All-Star Game will be introduced Aug. 2 in Kansas City.

RAWLINGS RETURN: Wilson has held rights as MLB’s official fielding glove for years, but the industry standard for fielding excellence is the 54-year-old Gold Glove Award, owned by rival sporting goods brand Rawlings, which in turn markets MLB’s official ball and helmet. Having failed to wrest glove rights from Wilson this past offseason, Rawlings instead is funding a seven-figure revival of its famed Gold Glove award dinner. In recent years, the 18 winners (one for each position in each league, voted by managers and coaches) have been presented their award in short, on-field ceremonies. In hopes of elevating brand equity, the first Gold Glove award show since 1993 will be held Nov. 11 in New York.

“Everyone knows about the Gold Glove. We’re trying to make sure they think of Rawlings along with that,” said Michael Thompson, Rawlings senior vice president of marketing.

Rawlings, looking to ensure as many of the 18 winners attend as possible, will have Jerry Seinfeld as the featured entertainment, and the players’ wives and girlfriends have been promised a “fashion experience” with designer Tory Burch on the afternoon of the event. Gold Sport Collectibles is the presenting sponsor. Jamie Robinson’s Alliance Marketing Partners of Conshohocken, Pa., is helping manage the event and sell sponsorships. Both a media partner and a charitable tie are pending.
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