Wednesday, July 4, 2007

George Washington was one of America’s greatest citizens, but today he will be bestowed with arguably his most prestigious honor: immortality via bobblehead.

The Nationals today will hold the first of their four bobblehead promotions, handing out 20,000 caricaturized likenesses of “George,” the most dashing of the popular “Racing Presidents” mascots. And they do so with the knowledge that more often than not a bobblehead giveaway means an attendance boost of several thousand fans.

Nationals officials said they are projecting attendance between 35,000 and 38,000 for today’s game against the Cubs, which would be more than 10,000 fans above average and the largest crowd of the year.

“They’re creating it from a caricature, so it’s perfect,” Nationals spokesman Chartese Burnett said. “This is one of those promotional items that has the ability to drive ticket sales. It’s not scientific, but just in terms of buzz and excitement you can tell that bobbleheads are very popular.”

The team has promoted the bobblehead giveaway in several campaigns, including driving “George” around Washington in a convertible, complete with mock Secret Service detail. (Bobbleheads of Abe, Tom and Teddy are scheduled to be given out at home games later this year.)

Bobbleheads aren’t always a guarantee of big crowds — the team drew just a few hundred extra fans for Jose Guillen bobblehead night last year — but a cursory analysis of attendance at baseball’s 30 ballparks in the last two years shows that on average the lure of a free bobblehead can fill an additional 5,000 to 10,000 seats, depending on the opponent and night of the week.

Since first introducing bobbleheads as a promotion in 2003, the Milwaukee Brewers have seen an average uptick of 7,500 fans at games featuring a bobblehead giveaway, team officials said. The team drew more than 43,000 fans to Miller Park on June 3 for Prince Fielder bobblehead night, and the upcoming game July 15 featuring a bobblehead of the Chorizo Racing Sausage character is already a sellout.

The Nationals drew more than 32,000 fans at RFK for Chad Cordero bobblehead night last June, a 6,000-person boost over the average crowd. The Blue Jays boosted attendance by more than 8,000 a game for Vernon Wells and Cito Gaston bobblehead giveaways last season, while the Rangers saw an increase of 10,000 fans for Mark Teixeira bobblehead night last July 29.

On June 10 of this season, Cal Ripken bobblehead giveaway in Baltimore drew more than 34,000 fans, constituting the sixth-largest crowd of the season.

“It’s one of the few promotional items that appeals to both kids and adults and has a high perceived value,” said Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers vice president of business operations. “All of our bobbleheads have been tremendously well received.”

Bobblehead dolls first emerged in the early 1960s, and most featured an identical cherubic face. When bobbleheads returned to prominence about five years ago, manufacturers had learned to sculpt and paint the dolls to resemble the players. In recent years, teams began giving away bobbleheads of mascots and other characters.

Major league teams will distribute 76 bobbleheads during the season featuring the faces of everyone from Ichiro Suzuki to the Phillie Phanatic. “George” is one of the more distinctive bobbleheads to be distributed this year, according to the manufacturer.

“We’re always looking to come up with new ways to make the bobbleheads exciting,” said Steve Avanessian, a vice president with Bensussen Deutsch & Associates (BD&A), which has produced bobbleheads for several baseball teams, including the Nationals. “This is kind of one of the newer evolutions. It’s one of the most unique bobbleheads we’ve ever done.”

Perhaps no team is more bobble-crazed than the Brewers, who are giving away a free doll to all fans at every Friday night home game. Two of the team’s 14 bobbleheads are modeled after current players, but most feature members of the Brewers’ 1982 American League championship team, which is being honored throughout the season.

The Kansas City Royals are also recognizing some retired players with bobblehead promotions. The team next week will give out a doll featuring the likeness of former pitcher Dennis Leonard, who won 144 games for the Royals between 1974 and 1986. Other “honorees” include retired pitchers Steve Busby and Paul Splittorff and former second baseman Cookie Rojas.

“It definitely seems like in small markets like ours, fans really get attached to these guys,” said Curt Nelson, the Royals’ director of marketing. “It’s kind of a hometown thing. And it does give them an opportunity to come back to the ballpark, get a nice reception and have the fans interact with them again.”

Some bobbleheads have become so prized that fans have been known to enter a ballpark for the promotion and leave without viewing the game. And it’s no secret that many fans will sell the bobblehead for a profit to collectors. Dolls of Ripken recently distributed at Oriole Park are selling on eBay for upward of $30, while older, rarer versions of some bobbleheads are priced at more than $500.

“The bobblehead has really exploded each season to be something more than just a stadium giveaway but a collectible,” Avanessian said.

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