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SMALL BUSINESS | Marketing

Dodgers Took a Calculated Risk in Moves

June 03, 1998|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blockbuster moves that split the Los Angeles Dodgers battery of Hideo Nomo and Mike Piazza probably won't have a dramatic impact on attendance at Dodger Stadium or sales of Dodger Blue merchandise. That's because winning teams, more than popular players, are what set turnstiles spinning and cash registers ringing.

"In this era of free agency, clubs aren't as likely as they once were to hitch their marketing wagon to one or two stars," said David M. Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports marketing consultant. "And, if the new guys start winning and the Dodgers go into the playoffs, it could be 'Mike who?' "

Sports marketing experts point to last year's Florida Marlins team, which rocked the sports world and upset local fans last year by dumping star players within weeks of winning the World Series. Now the team is doing poorly. "Last year everyone was buying their stuff, and now you can't give it away," said Christian Scott, marketing manager for Sports Specialties, Nike Inc.'s Foothill Ranch-based sports head-wear division.

Dodger newcomers Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield and Charles Johnson will have big shoes to fill given the popularity of Nomo, a favorite among many Asian Americans, and Piazza, who seemed born to wear the Dodger Blue.

Experts say their fastest route to fans' hearts and pocketbooks is to carry the Dodgers into a pennant race. But retailers will hesitate to add shirts with names like Bonilla and Sheffield if the Dodgers can't catch the division-leading San Diego Padres, said Jeff Sacks, an editor with Team Licensing Business, a Phoenix-based sports marketing company.

Said Sacks: "It's all about winning, getting into the post-season and extending the [merchandise and ticket] selling season."

Nomo and Piazza also face the tough task of leveraging fan good will accumulated in Southern California. Piazza faces uncertainties created by being a free agent who could change yet again. And Nomo's future is dependent upon reclaiming the sparkling form he once showed on the mound. The Dodgers and other retailers are continuing to sell everything from $10 Nomo plaques to $200 Piazza framed baseball card collections. But observers say it won't be long before the merchandise will be on markdown tables.

And the exiled players can't count on Southern Californians for support. "Rabid fans in L.A. will probably feel slighted," Sacks said. "They very well could root against Piazza . . . who they figured would be their Cal Ripken, a guy who would finish out his career in Los Angeles."

Sports marketing experts agree that individual athletes rarely spark noticeable changes in merchandise sales and attendance. "Michael Jordan is the only player who I think could have a tremendous impact on sales by switching teams," said Bob Carr, editor of Sporting Goods Business, a New York-based trade journal.

And as for the Nomo and Piazza merchandise now gathering dust on retail shelves? "It's collector material, but the fact they're no longer in L.A. doesn't do anything for the price," Carr added.

Fans who have grudgingly accepted free agency might develop new hometown heroes, observers say, if Fox Group's long-rumored trade for Randy Johnson is concluded and the Seattle Mariner pitching ace makes a solid contribution.

And, as the shock fades, "fans will give Fox the benefit of the doubt if they think the new owners really want to do what's best for the team," Carter said. "People may hate the day-to-day changes, but L.A. loves 'bigger and better.' "

Ripples created by the trades are pulsing through businesses outside of baseball.

New York-based GT Interactive Software Co. is scheduled to start selling its "Mike Piazza's Strike Zone" game for the Nintendo 64 system on June 18. Company officials weren't available Tuesday to comment on whether the game depicting Piazza in a Dodger uniform will be retooled.

Piazza's baseball odyssey also could alter his role as celebrity spokesman for Komatsu Ltd., a Tokyo-based heavy equipment manufacturer. Piazza "has a strong relationship with our parent company, his pictures are in every plant and he travels to Japan to meet with important customers," said Jimmy Slavens, a spokesman for the company's U.S. subsidiary.

With Nomo's days as a Dodger numbered, Laguna Nigel resident Stan Esecson doesn't expect to sell any more copies of a novelty music CD he produced in 1995 with help from his son, Sammy. Sung to the "Banana Boat" melody popularized by Harry Belafonte, the lyrics extol the virtues of Nomo, Piazza and retired manager Tommy Lasorda.

"Had they made it to the World Series a couple of years ago, it would have done great," Esecson said. "But now, none of those guys are with the team anymore."

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