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Volume 23 No. 29
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A new spin on MLB’s Spider-Man promo

It was the on-field sponsor logo that had Commissioner Bud Selig caterwauling at his subordinates the way Earl Weaver used to abuse MLB umpires. Sixteen years ago, Columbia Pictures cut a sponsorship deal with MLB to promote its second “Spider-Man” film, a sequel to what was the fifth-highest-grossing American movie ever.

The promotion was to have included 6-by-6-inch Spider-Man “web” logos on the bases and a version in on-deck circles during a weekend series of games at 15 ballparks in June 2004. It became a call to action for baseball purists, and their outrage killed much of the promotion.

“I knew [Spider-Man] was dead as soon as [Bob] Costas sanctimoniously condemned it and it was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal,” said a senior marketer integral to the deal. “Certainly, that was tame by today’s standards.”

Using the logo on-field in 2004 upset purists.
Photo: getty images

We’re now in a season when MLB has sponsor logos, real and virtual, on the pitching mound, on-deck circles, and along the foul lines. The only thing larger than the Disney and YouTube branding on the NBA Finals court was the league’s own oversized “logoman” icon. The NFL tripped over itself in a botched attempt to add more in-stadium branding for team sponsors, since their new “camera-visible” signage wasn’t. The NHL added more on-ice ads for its playoffs, and recently said it will ramp up virtual ads next season, a statement it might as well have been making for every big domestic sports property except the NFL.

With all that as the “new abnormal,” we were curious about how those involved in “L’Affaire Spider-Man” feel now, looking at that incident through today’s commercial lens, within which the largest stick-and-ball properties are moving closer to NASCAR. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’re just tracking it for you.

“It was light years ahead of where marketing was then, and I still feel it was way ahead of its time, as far as integrated marketing, and bringing kids into our game,” said former MLB Chief Marketing Officer Jacqueline Parkes, who developed the idea. Parkes, now CMO and executive vice president of Digital Studios for the Viacom/CBS Entertainment and Youth Group, still has a Spider-Man on-deck circle and home plate.

John Brody, WWE executive vice president, global head of sales, was an MLB sponsorship senior vice president when Spider-Man imploded. “Standards were a lot different,” he said. “Sometimes, the court of public opinion just runs over an idea and your partner gets skittish. They went from Spider-Man to Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

These days, Brody sees the surfeit of logos across sports and doesn’t like what he sees. Keep in mind that unlike other combat sports, WWE has not yet allowed logos other than its own in its programing. So, when Brody recently saw no fewer than eight logos behind home plate during an MLB telecast, he snapped an iPhone photo and sent it to his reports as an example of what not to do. 

For those fashioning that sort of construction, it’s about discerning that proverbial fine line between contemporary commercial mores and a Turkish souk. Of course, that line gets blurrier every season.

“Advertisers used to count on reaching fans in a more traditional way,” said MLB Chief Revenue Officer Noah Garden, who was with MLBAM during the Spider-Man fracas. “Clearly, that’s gotten harder, so it’s evolved. You’ve still got to be tasteful and be careful that you’re not interrupting the most important thing — the product on the field.” 

Hate mail regarding Spider-Man poured into MLB from around the world.

“If there’s one lesson learned over the past 20 years, its that the ultimate need for new revenue by teams, leagues or broadcasters creates strange new bedfellows,” said Tony Ponturo, who headed media and sponsorship at Anheuser-Busch in 2004, when, then as now, A-B was an MLB corporate sponsor. “There’s probably a greater tolerance from consumers right now, knowing there’s a need to generate more revenue, but from 10,000 feet, I’d say it creates a clutter problem.”

Some five years before, the same group of baseball marketers sold and executed a “Turn Ahead the Clock Night” promotion for Century 21, then an MLB corporate sponsor. Players in 13 games wore sleeveless, V-neck jerseys that were either “futuristic” or “tacky,” depending on your degree of purity. Players were depicted in alien caricature on ballpark scoreboards. The New York Mets even changed their name to the “Mercury Mets” for a game. Somehow, that was permissible, even 21 years ago.

“Aside from the uniforms and scoreboards we didn’t do anything inside the white lines, so that was OK,” said Steve McKelvey, department chair at UMass’ Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, who helped run the program while at PSP Sports Marketing. “It was an example of the different standard MLB is held to. If they do nothing, they get bashed for not attracting kids; if they do something like Spider-Man to attract kids, they get bashed. Sixteen years ago, baseball wasn’t ready to mess with things inside the lines, but if that had been an NBA promotion, they’d still be doing it.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.