Years from now, when sports business practitioners look back at 2007, will they recognize the “tipping point” of a new era in sports marketing?
Time will tell, but I believe an ideological shift in marketing philosophy gained acceptance and momentum this year on Chicago’s North Side.
While advertising on outfield fences is as much a baseball tradition as hot dogs and keeping score, the Chicago Cubs’ historic ballpark, Wrigley Field eschewed the traditional signs hawking beer, financial services, insurance providers and the like, and instead grew ivy to cover its outfield perimeter.
Other ballparks employed this clutter-free strategy; keeping its outfield fence clear of corporate branding (see: Boston’s 95-year-old Fenway Park).
But with the recent new ballpark construction boom, and its accompanying expansion of revenue-generating amenities, teams in older venues had to find new ways to level the “business operations playing field.”
Wrigley Field lacked what other ballparks had in spades – available space.
Until recently, Wrigley lacked any exterior, static fascia signage, let alone the latest LED technology, which virtually increases available advertising space exponentially. But this year marked the start of something Cubs’ management avoided since the ballpark’s opening in 1914 – allowing a sponsor to place its logo on Wrigley’s outfield fence.
The Cubs’ new partnership with Under Armour signals a fundamental change in what is considered sacred.
Wrigley is Wrigley because it takes fans, visitors and tourists alike back in time to baseball’s past – intimate, grandstand seating, and a singular focus on the game itself, free of advertising clutter.
But baseball in 2007 cannot survive without corporate partnerships (and the same is true for any sport). Teams sell sponsorship and advertising space based primarily on the number of views or impressions a particular item generates, and on-field signage is the most visible and sought-after pieces of inventory teams have in their sales arsenal.
While other teams generated millions of dollars in advertising revenue from on-field ad panels, the Cubs could not. The team had to level the “business operations playing field”…and help defray the added $300M payroll it added this past off-season.
Tradition be damned; the Cubs had to generate new revenues.
And Under Armour jumped at the opportunity.
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When the Boston Red Sox created a limited supply of advertising space on the Green Monster, Under Armour grabbed one of the two available slots to promote its brand to a captive audience all season long. Once the Cubs made Wrigley available, Under Armour seized the opportunity to tie-in its brand with one of sports’ fabled franchises (and promote the recently-signed, company endorser, Alfonso Soriano).
It makes sense that the relatively-new performance apparel company, founded in 1996, partnered with two of baseball’s historic franchises and placed its brand on the walls of sports’ two oldest existing venues. This brand association translates equally well for both sides of the partnership – Under Armour adds “tradition” and “timeless” to its name, and the Cubs and Red Sox gain “fresh” and “innovative” tags to their brand.)
The Cubs-Under Armour partnership is a clear win-win for both sides.
Since Wrigley’s outfield area is clutter-free, Under Armour has complete control of a high-visibility, viable advertising vehicle positioned in front of sold-out, captive crowds all season long. This does not even take into consideration the millions of fans tuning into nationally-televised broadcasts on WGN).
The Cubs add a significant revenue stream that was not on the books last year. Couple this with Wrigley’s outfield bleacher expansion and new LED displays added throughout the ballpark, and the Cubs are inching closer to leveling the “business operations playing field.”
So an idea that was once thought sacrilegious, now becomes a major revenue source for the Cubs. In an effort to find and maximize its revenue potential, what “space” will teams utilize next?
Three years ago, Major League Baseball tried to brand bases with “Spider-Man 2” logos as part of a partnership with Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios to promote the superhero sequel. Public backlash absolutely destroyed that idea; deeming bases and other items in-play “are sacred to the integrity of the game.”
From a potential sponsor’s point-of-view, I would not place a high amount of value on bases-as-marketing-vehicles. Fans at the game could not see it (too small), and unless camera angles gave consistent bird’s-eye views of the top of each base, the number of impressions would be minimal at best. The only way a team could convince me to buy advertising space on a base is if I could change the color of the entire base, making it really stand out to consumers inside the ballpark and those watching at home (think UPS and the color brown).
I am of the mindset that all teams regardless of sport MUST find new revenue sources both inside and outside their home arena, ballpark and stadium. Similar to any other business whose value grows with adding new consumers, maximizing its available inventory and managing its expenses, sports properties need to utilize everything at its disposal, even if it means acknowledging that tradition and “what worked in the past” has no place in today’s sports business culture.
Whether they intended to or not, the Cubs and Under Armour set the precedent for other teams to follow.
The day is near when an innovative sponsorship executive sells Scott’s or Miracle-Gro to an exclusivity agreement for the actual playing surface (either the entire field, foul territory or the sidelines), complete with Scott’s/Miracle-Gro’s logo designed into the grass for all fans (at the game and at home) to see.
The day is near when basketball teams place dasherboards around the court’s perimeter, not only providing them with new revenue streams, but a physical security buffer between players and trash-talking and trash-throwing fans.
The day is near when Windex adds static cling decals to a hockey rink’s plexiglass.
I do not want team uniforms to turn into NASCAR fire suits, but I would not object to a single sponsor adding its logo on a sleeve.
That day will come soon as well.
Kurt Hunzeker is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is the former editor of the Team Marketing Report, and the founder Sparts Marketing (www.spartsmarketing.com), a sports-centric design and consulting firm where sports, art and marketing fuse together to create award-winning campaigns, unique brand identities and innovative sponsorship platforms.
He, as well as all other authors on The Biz of Baseball can be contacted through the Author Profiles page.