A judge's decision Friday ended the 232-day-old players strike, and as owners scurried to figure out their response over the weekend, Major League Baseball's stars appeared headed back to the field. The big question was when.
But the even bigger question was how to bring back the fans.
An internal committee within MLB-consisting of top executives from sponsorship, licensing, broadcast and promotion-has been formed to create an integrated marketing effort, akin to the NHL's "Game On!" program. The hockey program includes print, radio and TV advertising and the participation of Anheuser-Busch and Sprint. However, the MLB committee has yet to even reveal its existence, much less its plan, to most clubs. It's expected the tagline for MLB's campaign will be, appropriately enough, "Play ball!"
Last Friday, executives on this committee told Advertising Age that elements of this program won't be finalized until the players' return was set.
From the broadcasters' side, baseball will win its "audience back, but it will take some interest-building events to get the people on the fringes back involved the way they were on the day the strike started," said George Mahrlig, partner at Media First International, New York. "There were pennant races and batting titles and things that were within reach. They were exciting. And it will take a while for it to get back to that point."
Marty Blackman, partner at sports promotion company Blackman & Raber, echoed that sentiment: "The use of baseball, not only in advertising but corporate promotion, has come to a screeching halt. What's going to benefit from that is tennis and golf."
Clubs that had made significant promotional plans to tout baseball with replacement players were thrown for a bit of a curve by last week's court action.
"We're still sitting here waiting to see what's going to happen," Rob Gallas, senior VP-marketing and broadcasting for the Chicago White Sox, said late Friday.
The White Sox's home opener wasn't scheduled until April 7. Teams that were to start the season at home more immediately faced the dilemma of what to do about Opening Day events and promotions.
The season was slated to start Sunday night with the Florida Marlins hosting the New York Mets. At press time, Marlins President Don Smiley said his team was holding fast to that plan.
Giveaways were slated from national and local marketers including NationsBank, Blockbuster Video and Blockbuster Music, Sports Authority, Coca-Cola Co., Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Alamo Rent-A-Car and Arby's.
The Cincinnati Reds had sold more than 46,000 Opening Day tickets as of last week for 55,000-seat Riverfront Stadium, even with the prospect of replacement players. Opening Day is a 127-year-old custom in the city-traditionally the first game played by the National League-and usually sells out less than a half-hour after tickets go on sale.
"If baseball doesn't begin on time, we will have to reschedule some promotional dates," said Reds Marketing Director Chip Baker. "But if baseball does begin on time, we intend to stay the course."
The Detroit Tigers had planned to pass out magnet schedules at their home opener today, a promotion sponsored by Thorn Apple Valley. Other promotions hadn't been firmed up because of the uncertainties of the season.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, "if the season is delayed, we'll analyze it and try to pick out future dates and reschedule those sponsors .*.*. We have not really addressed a [season] delay, but [one possibility is] we'll look at different days of the schedule" and try to reschedule the sponsorship events, said Steven Greenberg, VP-marketing and operations. He added that the Pirates have 43 sponsorship games scheduled for the upcoming season.
One team unfazed by the latest turmoil was the Baltimore Orioles.
"It's kind of a moot point for us because we're not going to play in any replacement games," said Scott Nickle, director of marketing and advertising.
"We're going to play with the regular complement of major league players," he noted. "We're supposed to open up Monday at home, but our games have been canceled. Our efforts have been focused on having an Opening Day with the regular complement of players. We're supposed to open against the White Sox; in fact, our first two series have already been canceled."
Written by Dan Lippe with contributions by Jeff Jensen, Joe Mandese, Raymond Serafin, Jack Neff, Laura Loro, Jeffery D. Zbar, Chad Kostel, Melanie Rigney, Electronic Media and Crain's New York Business.