Baseball Teams Pack Their Parks -- With Signs

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When emerging superstar Juan Gonzalez hits his first mammoth home run in the Texas Rangers' new stadium this month, the park will light up. And so will the sponsors.

"Incredible!" will flash from a sign for Tandy Corp.'s Incredible Universe computer superstores. Hundreds of lightbulbs will explode into action, highlighting a sign for Fina gas and convenience stores; the bulbs frame a painting of a ballplayer stroking a home run.

These two signs are among a half-dozen built atop an office building that buttresses the outfield at The Ballpark at Arlington, the Rangers' new stadium. They're the newest examples of how unique and fast-growing signage opportunities are moving sponsor messages into the action at Major League Baseball parks.

While scoreboards and outfield signs are integrated into game play, the lineup of on-field advertising is rapidly expanding to include signs behind home plate, logos painted atop dugouts and sponsor messages on tarp covers.

One could peg the starting point to the special signage-dispensation that the Baltimore Orioles received when they moved into Oriole Park at Camden Yards two years ago. But as the 1994 season begins, on-field advertising has taken on a life of its own.

With stadiums in Arlington and Cleveland opening this month, and two more scheduled to open in the next two to three years, sponsor messages will continue moving closer and closer to the center of baseball's plate.

"Camden Yards didn't open the floodgates; what you're seeing are baseball teams racing to replace $8 million per team in TV money that's going away" with the end of TV networks' buying upfront rights to broadcast baseball, said Rob Gallas, senior VP-marketing and broadcasting for the Chicago White Sox. "We're all wondering where that money's coming from."

For the Sox, a little extra comes this year with the addition of a rotating sign behind first base at Comiskey Park, conveniently placed to catch the TV camera for close plays.

For the San Francisco Giants, it's two signs for Bay area-based retailer the Gap-in "the gap," the in-between-outfielders space where baseball hitters like to aim in the Giants' Candlestick Park. Last year, two 8-by-16-foot Gap signs were painted on the outfield walls.

Now, when announcers talk about Giants superstar Barry Bonds hitting one "into the gap," they really mean it.

On-field placement is helping sponsors integrate their messages into one of the most emotional, intimate human relationships: the sports fan watching his team play.

"We're looking for ways to bring the fans closer to the game and the players-and the sponsors closer to the game and players as well," said Len Perna, former executive director-general sales manager for the Detroit Tigers, a 1993 pioneer in rotating signs.

In the off-season, the American League voted to allow all teams to add rotating signs; the electronic, lighted signage has become a courtside fixture of the National Basketball Association, the pro sports league everyone else desperately would like to emulate.

Pizza baron Mike Ilitch, who bought the Tigers last year, helped convince other American League owners to try the idea. Mr. Ilitch, who also owns Little Caesars Pizza and the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings, believed baseball wasn't tapping into an area basketball and hockey were.

Dorna USA, which markets Adtime, the leading signage system, will soon announce the addition of the California Angels' Anaheim Stadium-making eight A.L. teams signed up for this year. Dorna in 1994 will also test Adtime in two National League stadiums, in Houston and San Diego.

Last year, Adtime was used behind home plate; the Angels' deal calls for rotating signs behind first and third bases. In Houston and Toronto, Adtime this season is replacing nearly all the existing stadium signage.

Teams say they've consulted informally with players and umpires to make sure signs don't interfere with game play. The American League said one reason it approved wider use of rotating signs is that it didn't receive a single complaint, from fans or players, after last year's test.

In Seattle, the new owners of the Mariners last year added a backlit, rotating sign behind home plate; this year, two more signs popped up, behind first and third bases. Offered to sponsors an inning at a time, the signs cost marketers, including McDonald's Corp. and Anheuser-Busch, a paltry $64 per minute of TV time, estimated a source close to the team.

But for smaller-market teams, signage designed for the TV cameras offers the most value as a means of forced revenue sharing. The teams can cash in on ad dollars that teams in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles pick up with hefty local TV contracts.

When the New York Yankees come to Milwaukee to visit the Brewers, and the game is broadcast back to the Big Apple, "Our advertisers are not just buying the Brewer fans but buying the opportunity to have their products advertised to New York-and every other American League city televising from County Stadium," explained John Cordova, Brewers VP-marketing.

"Camden Yards was definitely a catalyst for all of us to move forward," Mr. Cordova said. "We're adding more signage as every year goes by."

The Orioles marketing staff is humble about its contribution. But after Camden Yards opened for the 1992 season, Orioles Director-Marketing and Advertising David Cope said, "We got a lot of calls from other clubs saying, `I didn't know we could do that.' It's a way to bring back the romantic aspect of baseball ... In researching Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and some of the old classic parks, we found they all had ads on their outfield walls."

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