Sports promos from way out of left field

Call it sports promoters gone wild. In a bid to pump up season-ticket sales, the Tampa Bay Lightning recently proposed offering coupons for free beer during games to early-bird buyers.

The pro hockey team backed down after protests by local police and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who envisioned fans weaving like Alexei Kovalev on a power play as they left the parking lot.

Earlier this month, Major League Baseball announced it would plaster red-and-yellow ads on bases for games during three days in June - a tie-in to the forthcoming movie "Spider-Man 2."

"Baseball purists were aghast," says Brett Boyle, a sports marketing professor at St. Louis University. "The diamond was, literally, territory that hadn't been 'sponsored' yet."

The public and some teams balked, and the league scrapped the plan.

Such incidents are raising concern that sports promotion has edged past traditional bat days and bobblehead giveaways - still staples - and into a twilight zone where anything goes if it can turn a buck.

Indeed, some revenue-hungry teams are pushing the envelope, observers say. But the forces behind the new experimentation really stem from growing corporate involvement in professional sports - and a rising demand for additional entertainment among the fans themselves.

"There's an enormous amount of clutter, an enormous amount of 'product' in the marketplace," says John Bevilaqua, president and CEO of Creative Marketing Strategies in Atlanta. "Trying to separate yourself - your event, your team, your 'circus' - and competing for ticket sales is what it's all about."

By all accounts, the corporate dimension of sports promotions is expanding. Nielsen Media Research just announced the July launch of a service that will measure the amount of exposure companies gain through signage at sports events. The idea: to help teams and marketers set prices.

It could also recharge speculation that professional athletes themselves will eventually end up smothered in logos, like NASCAR vehicles or European soccer players, experts suggest.

Such in-your-face promos will spread, says Ron Sterlekar, who heads the sports division of Direct Marketing Network, a consulting firm in Houston: "Sports teams are trying to satisfy the needs of the sponsors, to give them more visibility."

But whether it's companies waving logos or team ownership staging loopy, peripheral diversions, the focus is shifting too far away from the game, say some critics. In Boston, where tolerance for sports frivolity is low, a columnist in an alternative paper last week ripped into the recent suggestion by the Celtics that the team might introduce cheerleaders - calling it a part of a reach for "Disneyland with a basketball sideshow."

Sports fans might as well get used to big-production events, says Professor Boyle.

"There's more competition for entertainment dollars, more sports, more channels to watch sports," he says. "Getting people to fork over a lot of money is something that now requires an incentive of some kind."

Corporate sponsors have been quick to identify the concept of "activation," getting fans involved with their brands, Boyle says. "It goes beyond putting up a sign and hoping people will connect. Brands play a part in the experience." There's a Coke-branded slide for children at Turner Field in Atlanta, he points out.

And more teams have embraced this interactive angle. They need to. Besides translating to higher gate receipts, packed stadiums look good on television - and help sports franchises maintain lucrative broadcast contracts. As a result, for spectators at most major pro venues, there's never an unfilled moment.

The approach amounts to a kind of segmented selling, offering something-for-everyone versions of one "product," says Mr. Bevilaqua. "Everybody's doing it."

Reeling off the caloric and flavor variations of soft drinks, he adds: "It's the same in the sports world."

"Different people are entertained by different aspects of the overall experience," says Boyle. "Kids get a kick out watching the sausage races at Miller Park in Milwaukee," where actors dress up as wurst links and run the park's perimeter. "The game is not the entire thing, and the people that run these operations understand that."

"It is turning into sort of a carnival situation," says Bevilaqua. Still, it is also in some ways a throwback phenomenon, he adds, recalling Atlanta Braves games in the 1970s that included one of the Great Wallendas crossing the stadium on a tightrope.

As early as the 1950s, legendary showman Bill Veeck tried a range of stunts to promote the baseball teams he owned in a handful of Midwestern cities. He sent a midget - with a very limited strike zone - up to bat for his St. Louis Browns.

Mr. Veeck's son, Mike, who is now part owner of several minor league teams, famously continued the tradition with "Disco Demolition Night" in Chicago in 1979. Fans who smashed disco records between the games of a double-header got in for about a dollar. The younger Mr. Veeck has since reportedly had mimes reenact plays, and sent a pig to deliver baseballs to a home-plate umpire.

"People have short attention spans," says Boyle. "They need to be fed something other than the game."

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