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MARKETING / BRUCE HOROVITZ

Rebirth of Baseball : The National Pastime Has Reinvented Itself

March 15, 1994|BRUCE HOROVITZ

With or without Michael Jordan on its 1994 roster, Major League Baseball appears to be making a magnificent off-the-field comeback. Behind it all: shrewd marketing.

Just one year ago, baseball was saddled with more image problems than Tonya Harding. TV viewership was in the tank. Attendance had been flat for four years. Advertisers were grumbling. Fans were fed up with greedy owners, crybaby players and high ticket prices. Media criticism was relentless. Baseball became the Rodney Dangerfield of professional sports.

Yet fans flocked to ballparks in record numbers last year--a record that would have been achieved even without the two expansion teams that joined the National League. Now, with opening day less than three weeks away, it appears to be OK again to admit to liking baseball.

This image reversal--while far from complete--is due in large part to clever marketing.

"Baseball is making a major-league comeback," said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report in Chicago. "The sport is finally playing up its strong points."

The turnaround began last year with an announced overhaul of baseball's playoff structure--which is expected to pump some pizazz into the game. It continued this winter with the formation of the Baseball Network, a powerful marketing group that will give fans more of what they want most: home teams on TV.

Marketers are also catching on to the emergence of several young superstars who are showing up in national ads--and even in computer games. And it is no accident that two marquee athletes--Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson--are wearing baseball jerseys this spring.

"Baseball has finally gotten ahead of the curve," said Michael Trager, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the New York-based Baseball Network. The group is a joint venture of Major League Baseball and ABC and NBC, the two networks that will share baseball's national TV time this year.

Its first move was to scrap baseball's Saturday afternoon Game of the Week. Reason: Viewership has declined 35% since 1986, Trager said. In its place will be weekly evening broadcasts of local or regional teams on the networks. "That's what fans want," Trager said.

Some off-the-field changes are expected to immediately make baseball a more marketable commodity in 1994. A new league alignment--with fewer teams in each division--means each team has a better shot at making the playoffs. And a revised playoff structure also means more teams will participate in post-season play this year.

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Instead of advertising baseball by showing fans cheering in the stands, the networks are calling upon baseball's stars to promote the '94 season. Some of these young stars are finally picking up endorsement contracts as well.

Barry Bonds, the reclusive slugger for the San Francisco Giants, is in TV spots for Wilson and Nike. Ken Griffey Jr., the Seattle Mariners star, has linked up with Nike and Kellogg. And a Nintendo computer baseball game bearing Griffey's name hits the market next week. Chicago White Sox batting star Frank Thomas is featured in a Reebok TV spot.

The Baseball Network is expected to soon announce a handful of sponsors that will buy ad time during the games and forge promotional tie-ins. Texaco will sponsor the 1994 All-Star Game balloting. In fact, more ballots are expected to be filled out at Texaco gas stations this year than in all 28 baseball stadiums, said Tom Matthews, president of Texaco Refining & Marketing.

Meanwhile, former NBA superstar Jordan--whose minor league performance has been, at best, disappointing--has still created a media frenzy while trying to catch on with the White Sox. And Jackson--whose hip surgery two years ago may have shortened his baseball career--is a sure bet to fill some seats at Anaheim Stadium.

Yet both teams have been careful about how they promote these superstars to local fans. Neither player is expected to be a starter this year--and Jordan may not even make the team.

"These guys are shedding light on the hunger there is for a larger-than-life baseball hero," said Brian Murphy, editor of the Westport, Conn.-based Sports Marketing Letter. "Baseball doesn't need to retool its marketing; all baseball needs is one or two heroes."

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But for the time being, at least, Angel fans won't see much of Jackson in ads.

"As a marketing person, you salivate over the fact that you have a Bo Jackson in camp. He just walks on the field and everyone cheers," said Joseph Schrier, vice president of marketing for the Angels. "But we don't want to mislead fans or embarrass anybody by featuring him in our advertising. We have to first make sure that he makes the team."

Still, Jackson did appear in a preseason newspaper ad in Tempe, Ariz., which helped fill the spring training ballpark. The ad showed Jackson in an Angel uniform under the headline "Un-Bo-lievable."

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