SBJ/July 20-26, 2015/Leagues and Governing Bodies

New MLB leadership wins praise of sponsors

Red was the dominant color in Cincinnati, with a sprinkling of Royals blue.
Photo by: MLB PHOTOS


Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game seemed like the appropriate time to ask the league’s business partners about their early impressions of the new regime under first-year Commissioner Rob Manfred.

On the ground in Cincinnati, MLB’s business-side triumvirate of Bob Bowman, Tony Petitti and Noah Garden was praised for a willingness to take risks, with the revamped Home Run Derby and its gaudy rating on ESPN seen as a primary example.

“I’m not sure any of us know exactly what the ‘new baseball’ is yet and that’s OK, because corporate change takes time,” said Greg Via, director of global sports marketing at P&G’s Gillette, which shared a sponsorship of the Home Run Derby with Head & Shoulders. “But I do think that with the success with the Home Run Derby, they’ve pushed it back to being a $5 million [sponsorship] property.”

After finally consolidating digital and traditional sponsorship groups after years of being split, MLB has been preaching “One Baseball” all year. Is it there yet?

“Had they not made the change, I do not think we could have done our deal,” said Esurance’s Chris Lee, senior brand partnerships manager, ebullient after his brand’s title sponsorship of All-Star Game voting delivered a record number of online votes and more than 2 billion media impressions in the crowded insurance category.

“I don’t think we would have been able to navigate the different sides,” he said.

New Era Cap CEO Chris Koch sensed a willingness to experiment, saying, “The focus from the top on youth participation has been great, and they do want to try new things on the marketing side.” He cited a recent ad with Bryce Harper and an SI swimsuit model as something that would not have been permitted previously.

Unprecedented and relatively smaller deals, such as T-Mobile’s presenting sponsorship of the All-Star Game and the half-season official washer and dryer of MLB hookup with Maytag that will result in washing machines being displayed in bullpens or stands at the ballparks of the Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers, bear testimony to a new way of thinking.

“Maytag’s a nontraditional category for us, and baseball is nontraditional approach for them,” Garden said. “The idea is they can try out the sport. We bet on the value of our content and approach. Before, they [sponsors] couldn’t get in [to MLB] without multiyear arrangements.”

Moving forward, “with a unified platform, there’s an opportunity for baseball to do big, recurring platforms, like what the NFL has done with Kickoff or the NBA has done with Christmas Day,” said Adam Lippard, executive vice president at GMR, which is handling activation for Esurance and The Hartford, both first-year MLB sponsors.

Renewals after this season include stalwarts T-Mobile; General Motors/Chevrolet, one the sport’s biggest media buyers; and Bank of America, an MLB sponsor since 2004.

“There’s greater accessibility at MLB now,” said Charles Greenstein, senior vice president of sponsorship marketing at Bank of America.

BofA has tied its MLB rights to cause-related platforms since the 2009 recession, but this MLB season, it has pivoted to a brand play, with a nostalgia-laden “Memory Bank” platform asking fans to submit content about their greatest baseball memories. “Traditionally, there’s been a fairly significant imbalance of tangible versus intangible assets with MLB. But if it is ‘One Baseball,’ they should have plenty of tangible assets for us. So we’re looking for a new balance,” Greenstein said T-Mobile sponsorship chief Mike Belcher gave the “new MLB” kudos for flexibility and speed in helping to build their All-Star Game promotion in less than a month, boosted by the addition of a presenting sponsorship.

“There’s definite improvement,” said Belcher, whose company signed with MLB initially planning integration that would include cellphones connecting dugouts and bullpens. “The question for us is what role we play within MLB and how are we part of the experience? The way fans experience the game is so different now — any sponsorship needs to help us be part of that.”

SPIN CYCLE: The All-Star Game marketing tug-of-war between packaged goods competitors and fellow MLB corporate sponsors Church & Dwight and Procter & Gamble was contentious long before last week’s game.

However, it reached new levels of contention in Cincinnati, not coincidentally, P&G’s hometown. The hot button issue: a new P&G-sponsored video board in right field at Great American Ball Park that featured the trademarks of multiple P&G brands, including Tide and Crest. Since those brands compete in categories in which Church & Dwight holds MLB rights, C&D sought relief from MLB.

MLB replaced Tide and Crest trademarks with Reds branding after a rival sponsor protested.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF
Naturally, the Reds sided with P&G. We’re told the dispute went to the highest levels at MLB, and that strong lobbying from C&D and its agency, Maxus Sports & Entertainment, persuaded MLB to cover up the Tide and Crest logos with Cincinnati Reds branding.

“We’re happy that MLB did the right thing for us,” said Dan Bracken, director of marketing services at Church & Dwight.

There has been considerable back-and-forth between the brands. When C&D signed its MLB sponsorship before last season, it bought team signage in Minnesota and Cincinnati, planning for All-Star Game exposure.

P&G countered and subsequently underwrote the Reds’ new 90-by-30-foot Daktronics video board over right field, also the location of Church & Dwight’s sign.

As for the efficacy of the sponsorship, which is in the second of an original three-year deal, Bracken said MLB rights have allowed Church & Dwight to expand its product assortment at many retailers. This year, the company had more than 20 baseball-themed retailer-specific activations; last year there were nine.

C&D made MLB its first major sports expenditure and supports it with five team deals.

“This is all about pushing awareness of our sponsorship, especially among 24- to 42-year-old women,” Bracken said, noting an audience MLB also covets.

DATA MINING: The All-Star Game represented another major showcase for MLB Advanced Media’s Statcast tracking system, which combines optical tracking with radar systems. After test deployments last year, this year represents leaguewide use of Statcast, measuring advanced data such as batted ball speed and distance, defensive route efficiency and throwing speed, and baserunner speed. Fans watching Fox’s broadcast, for example, were able to see clearly, seconds after the play, how Most Valuable Player Mike Trout’s speed of 20.4 miles per hour allowed him to beat a throw home and score a go-ahead run in the fifth inning.

The next challenge for MLBAM with Statcast is not technological but editorial, centering on finding more situations like that one with Trout.

“It’s not about the system. It’s advanced even more than I thought it would, well beyond where I thought we would be by now,” said Joe Inzerillo, MLBAM executive vice president and chief technology officer. “The harder point is actually building a narrative and having context around this. The technology is ahead of our ability to understand and interpret it.”

MLBAM has sought to advance that aim, integrating into its online statistical leaderboard such measures as batted-ball exit velocity and home run distances. But Inzerillo suggested at least a full year’s worth of data will be necessary to build up a greater understanding of what is meaningful and what represents high-end performance in these measurements.

Statcast is being used by Fox, Turner Sports and the league-owned MLB Network, and MLBAM is beginning to work on efforts to integrate the technology into regional sports network broadcasts. MLBAM has also begun to monetize against Statcast, with a presenting sponsorship from and technology integration with Amazon Web Services.

ESPN used its own measurement system for the Home Run Derby, but MLBAM is negotiating with ESPN about broad use of Statcast to have largely uniform deployment across all of baseball’s television and digital partners.

Also, as all of MLB makes a concerted effort to improve youth fan development, Statcast represents an important tool.

“Kids embrace technology, and embrace data,” said Bob Bowman, MLB president of business and media. “These are things that help our knowledge of the game and, in turn, can deepen our fandom.”

PADRES ON THE CLOCK: The San Diego Padres are on deck as next year’s All-Star Game host club and sent a 30-person contingent to shadow their Reds counterparts during the week. The traveling group was supplemented by officials from the city of San Diego and the San Diego Convention Center.

While San Diego, like Cincinnati, presents another small-market setting with a tight downtown core near Petco Park, Padres officials are focused on putting a decidedly local and coastal feel on the event after a recent run of All-Star Games in Midwestern towns that also has included Minneapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis.

“Those cities have all done a great job with the All-Star Game, but we have so many things that are more unique and specific to our city, such as our military presence, our proximity to Mexico and the ocean, our Spanish history, and so on,” said Mike Dee, Padres president and chief executive. “Our job is to highlight all those things that are special about San Diego.”
Next year’s All-Star Game will also be the first large-scale sports event in the city since the finals of the 2006 World Baseball Classic and Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003. But Padres and local officials will take some planning and organizational lessons from Comic-Con, an event drawing more than 130,000 people each year.

Running point for the Padres on All-Star Game preparations will be Eddie Quinn, manager of partnership services, and Katie Jackson, director of marketing and brand activation.

Shoppers could “try on” MLB items using virtual dressing rooms at the FanFest store.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF
ON THE LICENSING FRONT: Being MLB’s second-smallest market didn’t hamper Cincinnati’s merchandise sales. Many licensees had their best sales ever outside of New York City’s Midsummer Classics in 2008 and 2013.

Sales at Aramark’s 15,000-square-foot FanFest store increased 32 percent, buoyed by FanFest attendance of 123,312, a 7 percent jump over 2014 and the fifth-largest crowd ever, behind St. Louis, New York (twice) and San Francisco. Attendance was aided in part by Great American Ball Park’s proximity to the Duke Energy Convention Center, site of the FanFest.

“Small town, but the passion here for baseball is as big as anywhere,” said Carl Mittleman, Aramark’s president of sports and entertainment, which was operating the FanFest store for the 17th consecutive year.

At the store, personalization was being offered on MLB-licensed bats, jerseys, caps and even socks from Stance.

“Virtual dressing rooms” from Zugara offered shoppers the ability to “try on” a range of virtual MLB garments, and the dressing rooms will be tested at Aramark team stores in Pittsburgh and Kansas City for the rest of the season.

Merchandise sales at the ballpark were up 16 percent. Rawlings sold out of All-Star Game baseballs by Monday afternoon.

By the afternoon of the All-Star Game, much of the licensed product was in short supply, leading some to offer an inescapable conclusion. “If the retail space was bigger, our numbers would be even higher,” said New Era’s Koch, who reported a whopping 40 percent sales increase over the 2014 event.

“Our licensees did a great job tying into the town’s baseball traditions,” said MLB’s Garden. “Still, based on these numbers, we might need a larger retail footprint next year.”

The size of the market did nothing to hurt licensed merchandise sales.
Photo by: TERRY LEFTON / STAFF
“The size of the market has not impacted us,” said Jim Pisani, president of VF Corp.’s Licensed Sports Group, whose Majestic brand is an MLB staple. “This is just one of the century’s best baseball towns, so it’s our best All-Star Game since San Francisco [2007], which was our best ever.”

Majestic had T-shirts commemorating Reds fan favorite Todd Frazier’s Home Run Derby championship at Cincinnati retailers the morning after.

ROYALS INFLUENCE: While red was predictably the dominant color seen around Cincinnati last week, fans wearing the Kansas City Royals’ blue were also a frequent sight, and the club’s influence could be felt all over the event, three years after Kauffman Stadium took its own turn as All-Star Game host. The resurgent Royals, who made a surprise run last year to the World Series and have the American League’s best record, sent a league-high four starters and seven players overall to this year’s All-Star Game. Kansas City posted by far the best local-market TV rating for the All-Star Game with a whopping 31.4, 178 percent higher than a year ago, and far better than the host market, which typically leads such a list.

The Royals at the All-Star break also held the game’s best local-market, regular-season TV ratings, and MLB’s largest attendance increase. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said reading the daily business metrics from the once-downtrodden Royals has been a source of personal joy. “It’s another indicator of the strength of our game,” he said.

HOW MAY I MIX YOUR DRINK?: As self-serve beer machines have swept through pro sports facilities, mixed drinks have similarly jumped on the do-it-yourself drink trend. Last week’s All-Star Game featured Delaware North Sportservice’s first experiment with the Monsieur bartender, a touch-screen, automated machine that prepares a wide range of cocktails to order. Monsieur thus far has worked with Levy Restaurants at several facilities it services, including Churchill Downs in Louisville and Illinois’ Arlington Park, and Delaware North sought to test the product in a ballpark environment in its own suite at Great American Ball Park.

The system comes in two sizes, a $4,000 tabletop unit, and a larger, kiosk-style one retailing for $10,000. Monsieur works by dispensing set amounts of ingredients from bottles stored in the back of the machine. The Atlanta-based company last fall raised a $2 million seed round, and counts NBA veteran Glen “Big Baby” Davis among its investors. While the Monsieur hardware is what initially creates attention around the product, company officials said much of the value from the system derives from its real-time data tracking.

“We’re seeing a ton of interest in the product,” said Donald Beamer, Monsieur president. “The system can work in many different places that don’t have a bartender, and provides lots of flexibility to incorporate local recipes.”

MOTHERS WELCOME: Last week’s All-Star Game represented a national showcase for more than $9 million in facility improvements at Great American Ball Park, including a large, new Daktronics scoreboard in right field. But among the most well-received elements, and perhaps the one of which club management is most proud, is a new nursing suite for parents to feed and care for babies. Situated on the ballpark’s suite level, the $120,000 project converted a former suite lobby into a comforting space for families.

The facility was largely underwritten by sponsorship dollars from Procter & Gamble brand Pampers and was designed by local homebuilder Fischer Homes. Several other facilities, including Seattle’s Safeco Field, have had dedicated nursing areas. But Cincinnati’s nursing suite is believed to be by far the largest and most developed of its kind, featuring gliding chairs, private restrooms, a kitchenette and storage lockers. Reds Chief Operating Officer Phil Castellini said he has fielded numerous calls from other teams about it.

“I’ve got five kids myself. My family has been through all the challenges in trying to care for young children in a stadium environment like this,” Castellini said. “So I knew very well that we could and should do a lot more in this area for our fans. But this is even beyond what I had originally envisioned. Honestly, if we were left to our devices, this might have been something less. But Pampers and Fischer Homes, and their imagining that went into this project, took it to a whole different place.”

FUNGOES: While ratings for the Home Run Derby on ESPN were up, Fox’s numbers for the main event were down a bit. The game finished with 10.914 million viewers, just above the event’s record-low audience of 10.897 million viewers in 2012. The viewership mark is down 4 percent from 11.34 million viewers last year. This year’s game earned a 6.6 national rating, the lowest on record for the event. The previous low was a 6.8 rating in 2012. While the overall audience was down from 2014, Fox did see gains among young male viewers, including the 12-17 demo (+19%) and 18-34 demo (+3%).

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