Sunday, June 13, 2004

BALTIMORE — What began last month as a national furor is ending with a near-silent whimper.

Today is the final day of Major League Baseball’s much-debated promotion of the upcoming “Spider-Man 2” movie in its ballparks, and the outcome is failing to match the initial hopes that led to the deal.

Before the weekend of hype began Friday, the effort already had suffered several key reductions. The idea of putting Spider-Man logos on top of the bases in each of the 15 home parks this weekend died in less than 24 hours when a torrent of fan and consumer advocate outrage prompted Sony Corp., the film’s distributor, to kill that element.

Changes were then quietly made to remove any plans to use Spider-Man-themed on-deck circles after batting practice, with Sony again getting cold feet about fan complaints. Teams also were given the opportunity to opt out of parts of the promotion altogether. The Baltimore Orioles were among those that did so, instantly nixing any thought of Spider-Man on-deck circles or bases.

“Camden Yards has a unique atmosphere. and we’re very careful about how and where we have our sponsorship,” said T.J. Brightman, the Orioles’ vice president of corporate sales and sponsorship.

Fox Sports also made no significant mention of the effort yesterday during its regional baseball coverage.

So what was left? Not much, certainly not enough to get the likes of Ralph Nader excited anymore. Three-minute movie trailers ran before each game on a slate of always popular interleague games. A handful of clubs still used Spider-Man on-deck circles during batting practice. Ads for the movie ran during local television coverage of games. And giveaways were rife, with thousands of fans receiving free masks and foam fingers. Sony executives also threw out first pitches.

Is the Spider-Man promotion still unseemly to purists of the game? Certainly. But the promotion no longer is a quantum leap ahead of an ordinary schedule magnet night at the ballpark. Barry Bonds, the game’s reigning best player and the true source of a weekend of strong crowds at Camden Yards, forgot the Spider-Man promotion was still happening.

“We’re talking about baseball, and you’re asking about a movie?” the San Francisco outfielder replied to a reporter, rolling his eyes. “Whatever. Who cares? Happy go Spider-Man.”

But even with that disdain and a clear miscalculation by baseball in assessing what fans will tolerate between the white lines, the Spider-Man campaign was by no means a total loss. The game’s fan base is far older than each of the other major sports leagues and has no fountain of youth in its immediate future. The game’s leadership, after years of ignoring the issue, is at last publicly acknowledging its problem and making active steps in search of a reversal.

Baseball’s quickie marriage with Spider-Man captured the lion’s share of public attention, but other, more carefully implemented promotions are happening below the surface and achieving far more traction. After successful co-promotions last summer with the Ozzfest and Lollapalooza rock music tours, MLB is back on the road this year with the Projekt Revolution tour featuring Linkin Park, Snoop Dogg and Korn. Each tour stop will feature batting cages and trailers full of video games and merchandise, all in the name of engaging teenagers and young adults who might not otherwise care about baseball.

“We’re all in the entertainment business,” Brightman said. “People who go to movies are the same people who come to Camden Yards. You always want to take a look at how promotions are applied, but the goal of reaching out to younger demographics is obviously a commendable goal. Baseball sometimes still gets criticized for being too stuffy, and that’s not something I think anybody wants.”

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