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Baseball Ad Campaign to Touch All Bases

A $25-million promotion is aimed at increasing revenue and fans. Commercials will have their own spin for the home team.

April 06, 1999|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last summer's home run derby was a hit with hard-core fans and newcomers, but major league baseball knows that the national pastime can't rely on warm memories to boost attendance and revive television ratings.

Major league baseball this week is unveiling a record $25-million advertising campaign that is designed to build upon fan interest sparked last season by the 1998 World Champion New York Yankees and home run kings Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The ads, which pitch baseball as fan-friendly entertainment, rely on the same formula that the National Football League and National Basketball Assn. have been using--showcase star players as they mingle with fans in humorous settings.

Taking its cue from the song that exhorts fans to "root, root, root for the home team," major league baseball has, for the first time, created a series of television commercials that franchises can customize through the addition of their own star players. The league is spending $15 million on the ads, with local clubs contributing $10 million.

Some observers question whether the campaign produced by Vigilante, a New York-based unit of Leo Burnett Co., can help baseball build its fan base in an era when many franchises are struggling to remain competitive. Salary shortfalls at poorer clubs mean that most franchises were all but eliminated from pennant races before the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies played the season opener Sunday in Monterrey, Mexico.

"In a league of haves and have-nots, some of this advertising is a disguise for the fact that [many teams] have absolutely no chance of winning," said Rick Burton, director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "By my count, 22 of the 30 teams have no chance of getting into the playoffs."

Marketing isn't confined to the airwaves. Both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels are taking care to attract youngsters who represent tomorrow's fans. While they will still give away bats, caps and balls, both teams are handing out Home Run Bammers, beanbag toys that are popular with boys and girls.

With corporate partner Nestle Inc., the Angels are offering "Ice Cream Sundays," where youngsters get treats, balloons and their faces painted. After the game, kids get to go onto the field and run the bases.

Taking a lead from the Dodgers and San Diego Padres, the Angels are actively courting Spanish-speaking fans. The Angels recently played an exhibition game against the Aguascalientes Rieleros, a Mexican League team. The Angels also will broadcast six of their games on Spanish-language KVEA-TV Channel 52.

Baseball clearly has problems. Rising ticket prices are adding to residual fan anger left over from a disruptive strike in 1994. Television ratings for the World Series between the New York Yankees and San Diego were among the worst ever.

The real solution is to put solid teams on the field, a difficult challenge because such talented pitchers as the Dodgers' Kevin Brown will earn more this year than the Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos spent last year to field entire teams.

"All the marketing that we do, all the supportive elements we can add to sweep in new fans are important," said Barry Stockhamer, vice president of marketing for the Dodgers. "But, at the end of the day, being competitive and being in the pennant race all the way through is what you want."

The Dodgers opened their season Monday afternoon against Arizona, while Anaheim plays its first game tonight against Cleveland.

With Brown in the fold, the Dodgers are a strong contender for at least a division title. The solid Angels are betting that slugger Mo Vaughn's arrival will propel the franchise into postseason play.

"It's a wonderful time for us to have national spots from major league baseball," said Ron Minegar, vice president of marketing for Anaheim Sports, the Walt Disney Co.-owned parent company of the Angels. "But we can also customize the spots with our own stars and personalities, which marks the first time for that sort of venture."

The ads will continue to highlight baseball's red, white and blue logo. "Yet, the campaign also lets franchises such as ours connect with fans about our part of the story," Stockhamer said.

Rather than spending heavily to craft individual ads for each team, Vigilante created commercials that can be inexpensively modified by having local players do voice-overs.

One commercial shows a fan reading a "fan letter" from a ballplayer. In the Angels' version, Jim Edmonds offers encouragement, along with sheet music, to a fan who can't sing the national anthem. In another, Angel Darin Erstad thanks a fan for encouraging fans in his section to cheer the Angels to victory.

Besides the major league baseball spots, the Angels and Dodgers are airing their own commercials and stepping up promotions.

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