- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Major League Baseball draws about 70million fans to its ballparks each year, generates more than $4billion in annual revenue and is wildly popular around most corners of the globe.

And by its own admission, it has a relevance problem.

This month’s “Spider-Man 2” flap — in which Columbia Pictures cut a deal to promote the upcoming blockbuster film in MLB ballparks and then a day later killed plans for the movie’s logos on the bases — was never about an immediate cash grab. The paltry $3.6million MLB agreed to for the June11-13 promotion ensured that much.

Rather, the Spider-Man deal was about finding new ways to create fans among children ages 8 to 14, a group rapidly becoming indifferent toward baseball, as well as discovering new applications for the cluttered mass that is corporate sponsorship.

Making gains in either area has been, and will continue to be, a difficult, angst-ridden task for MLB. Its typical fan is more than 40 years old, much older than several other leading sports. And baseball’s rich history — something MLB vigorously sells every day — makes promotions like the Spider-Man deal that much more jarring.

Still, marketing itself in a much younger and more modern fashion is assuming front-burner status among MLB executives and promises to be one of the game’s highest off-field priorities for the foreseeable future.

“Baseball is no longer the killer application for every age group. That is the big challenge we face. We’re having to work harder to give kids a reason to go to the ballpark,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president for business. Brosnan played a lead role in brokering the Spider-Man promotion, which will continue next month with all its other elements, including logos in on-deck circles and related merchandise given away at ballparks.

“Yes, some alterations were made in that instance, but we absolutely cannot retreat. Kids are getting just bombarded with options. There is no way we can or will rest on our laurels,” Brosnan said.

The early consensus on the Spider-Man promotion was baseball moved far too fast, too soon and too clumsily. Despite corporate names and logos festooned in and around every MLB ballpark, fans clearly hold what happens between the white lines to a much higher, and perhaps sacrosanct, level. The same could be said for baseball itself compared to sports like hockey and auto racing that are drenched in corporate imagery. And some team executives, including Chicago White Sox owner and Bud Selig-confidant Jerry Reinsdorf, didn’t even know about the effort until it was publicly announced.

It’s not the first time MLB rushed after the youth market, only to have the aggressiveness backfire. Two years ago, MLB developed an ad campaign called “Dynamic Superhumans.” The animated TV and print ads depicted several players, even some as spindly as Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez, as bulked-up musclemen. The advertising arrived the same month Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco made charges of widespread steroid use in baseball, claims that fester to this day in the form of the federal investigation of BALCO. The ads were quickly redrawn to lessen the size of the players.

Uniform ads for Ricoh used during two games in Japan to start the regular season and an aborted attempt last year to use special American and National League uniforms for the All-Star Game, while not ostensibly youth-driven, provoked a similarly widespread negative reaction.

“They have sunk to a greedy new low,” consumer advocate Ralph Nader said.

The struggles with younger children, interestingly, contrast against some baseball marketing successes with teens and young adults. For example, last year’s MLB Road Show, in which baseball surprisingly sponsored the Ozzfest and Lollapalooza hard rock tours, gained wide favor with fans and musicians alike.

Many involved in baseball believe the rules of engagement toward youth have long since changed and continue to exist in a state of flux.

“Kids are so much more aware of the world now and how things work,” said Stephen Keener, president and chief executive of Little League Baseball. “I’m 46, and I’m from the generation of World Series games in the daytime. I didn’t have ‘SportsCenter,’ cable TV, the Internet, video games and so forth. And not all that exposure is bad. Kids today are very, very smart. But it obviously means you have to find their language and speak to them in that language.

“Putting a corporate logo on the bases is not something we would do, but I can understand where Major League Baseball is coming from. I don’t think you would have gotten a huge outcry from that 8-to-14 age group,” Keener said.

Deciphering the youth language is now in the hands of MLB’s Blue Ribbon Marketing Panel, a committee formed 18 months ago by Selig and composed of leading executives from baseball, media, and corporate America. Under the often-criticized Selig, MLB has experienced a rather swift and shocking transformation in its on-field product over the last 15 years. For a so-called traditionalist, Selig marshaled in an extra playoff tier, realignment, additional revenue sharing and international play. After initial criticisms for each, the moves are generally accepted by fans and teams alike.

Now the same radical thinking is at hand to govern Brosnan and the new marketing group. But complicating the effort is that, for now, few children engage in easily measurable activities like buying tickets and merchandise.

Brosnan refused to speculate whether a corporate logo will be considered for a base again, wanting “the dust to settle” on that front. But one thing certain for a repeat is a joint promotion with an entertainment entity unrelated to baseball, as is the case with “Spider-Man 2.”

“Is there enough in baseball itself to sell the game? Of course there is. If you don’t believe that, you may as well pack it in,” Brosnan said. “At the same time, however, we know our business spikes when there are major events to capture people’s attention. So if there’s any overarching goal to our marketing, it’s that we’re going to event-ize the business, to turn that into a verb. We want major focal points throughout our season.”

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