Thursday, May 6, 2004

Coming soon to a ballpark near you: advertising for “Spider-Man 2” atop bases, pitching rubbers and on-deck circles.

The $3.6 million marketing deal between Major League Baseball (MLB) and Columbia Pictures, distributor of the much-anticipated superhero movie, marks the latest attempt by baseball to push the boundaries of sports marketing and has flared long-standing tensions between MLB executives and so-called purists of the sport.

The spider web-patterned advertising will appear June 11 to 13 in 15 MLB stadiums, including Camden Yards in Baltimore.

“This is a large opportunity for us to reach out to kids,” said Jacqueline Parkes, MLB senior vice president of marketing and advertising. “We need to engage young people more and in more relevant ways, and this is a big step in that direction.”

Corporate advertising in professional and major college sports, of course, is hardly new. The past decade has been marked by tens of billions of dollars spent on stadium-naming rights, high-profile TV ad campaigns during games, corporate signs in, on, and around ballparks and arenas, and in the case of several leagues, ads on player uniforms.

The NHL, NFL, NBA and NASCAR for years have allowed corporate signage near or on playing surfaces, perhaps most notably the rink’s boards and ice itself in hockey and individual cars in auto racing.

But baseball, because of the sport’s deep heritage in American history, has been held to a much higher standard, and that has produced a quick and heated outcry from a wide variety of critics, consumer advocates and academics.

“It’s sad. I’m old-fashioned. I’m a romanticist. I think the bases should be protected from this,” said Fay Vincent, former MLB commissioner and a critic of baseball’s current regime led by Bud Selig. “I feel the same way I do when I see jockeys wear ads. Maybe this is progress, but there’s something in me that regrets it very much.”

Other elements of the promotional effort, announced yesterday and reported in the Wall Street Journal, include trailers of the movie to be shown on stadium scoreboards and stadium giveaways of foam fingers and masks with the Spider-Man logo. Columbia Pictures also unsuccessfully tried to get “Spider-Man 2” written on the netting behind home plate.

The 15 home clubs will receive a larger share of the $3.6 million from Columbia and its parent Sony Corp., given the adjustments and logistical work required to carry out the promotion. The weekend chosen for the promotion is one with interleague play between American and National League teams, popular with many fans, and comes more than two weeks before the June 30 opening of “Spider-Man 2.”

MLB executives were quick to defend the deal.

“Any criticism of this, really, is misplaced,” said Bob DuPuy, MLB president. “It doesn’t detract from the game. It adds to the entertainment value. We’ve been accused over the years of not marketing enough to young people.”

The “Spider-Man 2” promotion also drew the renewed criticism of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. On Tuesday, Mr. Nader wrote to Mr. Selig protesting the use of commercial ads on player uniforms during a two-game series played in March in Japan by the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. No such uniform ads are in development for MLB games played in North America.

“It’s gotten beyond grotesque,” Mr. Nader said. “The fans have to revolt here. Otherwise, they’ll be looking at advertisements between advertisements.”

Baseball has placed special artwork on its bases and on-deck circles on many occasions and will do so again Sunday to commemorate Mother’s Day. Other examples include the World Series, All-Star Game and Opening Day.

Never before, however, has a commercial ad been placed on top of a base. Commercial Alert, an Oregon-based advocacy group, is seeking a broad boycott of Sony.

“How low will baseball sink?” said Gary Ruskin, Commercial Alert executive director. “Next year, will they replace the bats with long Coke bottles, and the bases with big hamburger buns?”

Late last night, the Yankees balked at the idea after the deal was announced. They will put ads on the bases only during batting practice, and then just for one game, team spokesman Rick Cerrone said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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