Charlie Brown, Darth Vader, Captain America and Lord Snow are packing ’em in at the ballpark. Or at least they did in 2017.
The licensing arms of those entertainment brands, along with those of Hello Kitty and classic rockers Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Buffett and the Beatles, combined to activate at 98 MLB games last season, according to SportsBusiness Journal’s 12th annual analysis of MLB game-day promotions, more than double the number of dates that were staged by entertainment properties in 2016, and triple 2015’s total.
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The promotions typically included a stadium-wide takeover, complete with walk-up music for the batters, video-board graphics, roaming costumed characters mingling with similarly dressed fans, and postgame fireworks synced with a soundtrack from the night’s theme. But while the masses were enjoying the unique atmosphere, somewhere in the ballpark a small group paid a premium for an experience that, depending on the theme, may have included meeting a Wookiee before the game and receiving a bobblehead that was exclusive only to them.
As a bonus to the teams, the packages are often purchased by people who are not part of a club’s typical target.
The Milwaukee Brewers, a franchise that’s historically one of the most active when it comes to game-day promotions, built a new data-driven business model last year to maximize the effectiveness of these types of activations.
“There’s a stature to those pop-culture brands,” said Teddy Werner, the Brewers’ vice president of marketing and business strategy. “Not only can you give away an exclusive item, like our limited-edition Jedi Keon bobblehead — but the activation throughout the ballpark enhances the experience for all the fans. More importantly, of the 25 different theme night packages we offered [in 2017], our analytics team determined that 25 percent of the tickets we sold were truly incremental, meaning these were fans that had never, or would likely not have ever, attended a game at Miller Park.”
The team is able to identify social media followers of brands like “Star Wars” who can be targeted with ads. For example, the team’s Grateful Dead night was slotted on an August weeknight when the Twins were in town, which was not projected to be a high-demand game. The Brewers sold all 3,900 of their special-event tickets. Overall, 30,174 fans turned out — 12.4 percent higher than the other dozen Wednesday night home games the team played this year.
Werner said sales of the Brewers’ themed ticket packages could have been higher if not for conservative estimates during year one of the more robust theme-night program.
Mindy Hamilton, senior vice president of global partnerships for Marvel, echoed Werner’s comments about the entertainment industry’s ability to increase game-day revenue.
“These events help with increasing attendance, engaging a sponsor and activating co-branded retail,” she said, “but more importantly it’s about helping teams reach the Marvel fan base who may or may not be into baseball.”
After a May 2016 limited-ticket, superhero-themed event held by the San Francisco Giants — Marvel’s only MLB client that season — the club’s data indicated that 84 percent of the attendees had not been to a Giants game in at least three years, if ever. When the New York Mets handed out 15,000 Thor-Noah Syndergaard bobbleheads this summer, some fans arrived six hours before Citi Field opened, Hamilton said.
Overall, 10 clubs hosted Marvel-themed events last season and distributed more than 100,000 co-branded items, with 18-20 events and at least double the number of units projected for 2018.
Two game-day activation rookies also had strong years.
HBO already had a tangential relationship with the league — MLB’s BAMTech supports the HBO Now streaming service — but the network wanted to become more engaged with the game’s fans.
“This was a collaborative process between the ‘Game of Thrones’ marketing team, MLB and the individual clubs that had been in development for quite some time,” Jeff Peters, HBO’s vice president of licensing and retail, said via email. “Our goal was to collaborate with MLB and reach their audience, extend the themes of ‘Winter is Here’ in a fun way into the MLB/summer landscape and promote Season 7.”
The 21 clubs that staged a “Game of Thrones” night saw average attendance increase 10.4 percent compared to the teams’ seasonlong average on the same night of the week.
Charlie Brown, on the other hand, was more like Roy Hobbs from “The Natural.”
Seven clubs in 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” with “Peanuts”-themed in-game entertainment and a limited-edition Charlie Brown bobblehead.
“Baseball and ‘Peanuts’ are both a part of the DNA of American pop culture and they have been intricately linked since the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip premiered in 1950,” said Lindsay Martinez, Peanuts Worldwide’s vice president of hardlines and partnerships. “Our 2017 bobblehead program and related ‘Peanuts’ nights were incredibly successful, with over 70,000 bobbleheads distributed, and we are looking forward to introducing a new Snoopy bobblehead for the 2018 season.”
But not all successful theme nights are dependent on make-believe characters. Beyond the activations with the entertainment properties, clubs offered a record 647 limited-seating, themed ticket packages in 2017, a more than threefold increase over just two seasons ago.
Katie Jackson, the San Diego Padres’ director of marketing and brand activation, said the team put most of its focus on attracting more community groups in 2017. The year-end numbers indicate that their strategy paid off, as the Padres sold out 31 of their 35 themed events.
MLB clubs also tapped into other pro and college teams in their markets with successful cross-promotions.
Half the teams hosted a night where they partnered with an area college to offer a package that typically included a co-branded cap or T-shirt and a donation to the university. The Boston Red Sox, for example, hosted 35 theme nights in 2017, up from 29 in 2016, and are bullish on their college program.
“Our most successful theme nights were part of our college series promotion with Harvard, Northeastern, UMass and Boston College,” said Travis Pollio, manager of group sales and special events for the club. “Every one of those nights sold out [a total of 4,500 tickets]. We plan to bring the college series back in 2018 and to grow the number of participating schools. This is a pretty popular program across the league.”
Kenny Farrell, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ vice president of marketing and analytics, said his club’s most successful events were Arizona State and University of Arizona nights. The Diamondbacks’ new analytical strategy helped them sell 45 percent more themed-event tickets and generate 33 percent more revenue for their nine dates than they did during the seven themed games they held in 2014, Farrell said.
While specific demographics or current hot brands are usually the target, eight clubs teamed up last season with a lifestyle.
Courtney Griffith, Margaritaville’s marketing director of content and communications, pointed out that by hosting a Jimmy Buffett night, teams can tap into a built-in base of avid brand loyalists in every city who are highly active on social media, which helps the clubs capture data about potential fans.
The Texas Rangers drew 40,276 on their Margaritaville-themed night July 7, which was 23 percent higher than the average for its other 12 Friday night games last season. Margaritaville recently added the Miami Marlins to its roster, and next season fans will be able to buy a game ticket/hotel/transportation package when they stay at the new nearby Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort.
“There are Parrot Heads everywhere,” Griffith said. “And if there is a Margaritaville event near them, they are there. Even more importantly, all summer long I kept hearing people say, ‘This is the first time I’ve been to a game.’”