Long history of on-home plate advertising opportunities makes jersey patches the next layer for MLB sponsors

When advertising patches on the sleeves of Major League Baseball uniforms cost eight figures a year, even with helmet ads to be added later to the unprecedented mix of camera-viewable ads in professional sports, we thought it would be instructive to look back at the moment commercial exploitation on MLB playing fields resurfaced. Of course, exterior wall signage was common during what is often referred to as MLB’s “golden age” of 1920 to 1960. Yet once television became the primary source of revenue in the 1960s and 1970s, “clean places” were de rigueur, and exterior walls were stripped of everything but distance markers.

Even false memories can be remarkably vivid, but as far as we could determine, the Milwaukee Brewers were the first team in MLB to have signage behind the plate. John Cordobaformer Brewers vice-president of marketing, remembers thinking about it when he started working for the team in 1988 and owner Bud Selig asked him to find new sources of income. They did some research and found that he would get about five minutes of TV exposure per inning. During the offseason, Cordova and the Brewers put up fake signs with brands like Miller Brewing and Pepsi, designed a video presentation, and showed team sponsors what could be a powerful and intrusive new advertising medium. Still, it was a time when the brand outside of MLB jerseys was just beginning to appear. Nobody wanted to cross the line with a property as traditional as MLB.

“Every advertiser said ‘Wow,'” said Cordova, who later led Coca-Cola’s extensive sports sponsorship portfolio. “No one wanted to take the first step. They were too afraid of the backlash.

Home plate advertising signage in MLB ballparks became commonplace in the 1990s after some early reluctance.Images: getty

So the brewers put the presentation and their rate card, which listed $60,000 per half-inning (about a third of the cost of a 30-second TV spot) and stuck it in a rarely opened cupboard. “We decided it was a dumb idea, since no one would buy it,” Cordova said.

In 1992, with the Brewers in the pennant race, Cordova tried it for real, with signs behind home plate for the team’s final three home games free of charge for Miller, Cordova’s last employer and the one of the biggest announcers on the team. “[GM Sal] bando said to me: ‘If you can bring in some money so that I can sign more players, I am for it.’ They had proof of concept of an actual game.

Around the same time as Cordova, CEO of TurnkeyZRG Len Perna was also tasked with finding new revenue as executive vice president of Ilitch’s sports empire, which included the Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. Ilitch was pushing for more traditional signage, as the park had few, if any. When Perna estimated the earning potential of signaling behind the plate at between $3 million and $5 million per season, Ilitch quickly became interested. But that would require the approval of all MLB owners.

“We’re the newest owner of baseball, and that’s the first issue I’m going to bring to other owners,” Mike Iltich said Perna. “I had to convince him that he was known as a marketer, and that was a progressive idea,” Perna said. With the help of the former NHL president John Zieglerthey took him to MLB winter meetings in 1992 and passed him off for the Tigers and Brewers to test him the following season.

“The only person who objected was George Steinbrenner“, Perna said. “He thought it was a slippery path to a bad place and just didn’t think there should be any signs on MLB grounds.”

Cordova’s recollections are that the politics were intense, with Selig doing much of the lobbying.

“It was a bloodbath,” Cordova said. “There was a lot of backlash about the overselling, but Bud was a consensus guy, so he built some.”

There were owners who hated the incursion of camera view ads, but others opposed it for purely commercial reasons – brands competing with their sponsors would get camera time.

The Brewers and Tigers started with him for the 1993 season and over the following seasons the objections subsided. Perna recalls earlier concerns about signs behind the plate interfering with infielders’ viewing of the ball. At one point he had the Tigers shortstop Alan Trammel take grounders in front of the proposed signage as an experiment. While some referees later ordered blank signs covered up, complaints from players before and after were minimal. Yet such was MLB’s aversion to change that the former MLBPA COO Gene Orza told ESPN at the time: “If clubs want to turn what many people consider their cathedrals into nightclub venues, that’s really their decision.”

Earnings made the decision easy. “There was definitely a lot of politics in the beginning,” said Jerry Cifarellifounder and former president of signage company ANC Sports, which helped introduce signage to MLB when he was at Dorna from 1989 to 1997. The NBA had been selling signage since 1990.

“Once people understood the advertising values, they had to,” Cifarelli said. “Even then, it was equal to the salary of a starting infielder. In larger markets, you could earn between $250,000 and $750,000 per half-inning.

While Steinbrenner originally hated the idea, after a Yankees first streak in Detroit, “we got a call from the Yankees asking for our economy,” Perna said. “We pretty much knew who was watching this show on TV.”

Once approved, Perna said it took about a day or two to sell the inventory, which the Tigers were selling by the minute, not by the half-inning as usual.

“Especially by the standard of the time, it was eye-opening branding,” Perna said. “It was probably the easiest thing we’ve ever sold, because it was so different. Our biggest problem was that we couldn’t do any transactions for over a year. Nobody was sure that it would be there for the next season.

Remember that when you hear about an MLB patch for more than the naming rights deal of an MLB team.

Terry Lefton can be contacted at [email protected]

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