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March 29, 2011

Span and Sain and Pray for Rain

Ad Nauseum

by Emma Span

There doesn’t seem to be much point in complaining about the commercialization of baseball. Everyone's aware of it, and no one is particularly fond of it; no one is ready to stop watching because of it, either, so here we are. An average game probably involves somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour of commercials, and that's not even counting the many additional ads you get in the course of the broadcast itself—the AFLAC trivia question, the AT&T call to the bullpen, the Drive Angry 3D bench-clearing scuffle, and so on. Even furious DVR gyrations can’t entirely save you.

But this isn’t down to the failures of modern society or the callowness of today’s youth—baseball has shilled for all sorts of products since its earliest days. Wrigley Field is named after a chewing gum company, Mickey Mantle promoted anything that wasn’t nailed down, Reggie Jackson got his own candy bar… and as someone who’s always said that I would cheerfully sell out if only anyone were buying, I won’t judge.

But there’s still a line that generally isn’t crossed—as demonstrated by the outcry, a few years ago, over baseball’s plan to sell space on the bases themselves to promote Spider-Man 2 during interleague games in 2004. Fans who had watched the length of commercial breaks sneak from 30 seconds to two minutes without protest decided that enough was enough, and Bud Selig, who values the appearance of propriety nearly as much as he does profits, backed off.

"I'm a traditionalist," Selig told the Associated Press. "The problem in sports marketing, particularly in baseball, is you're always walking a very sensitive line. Nobody loves tradition and history as much as I do."

Tradition and “history” that come from a marketing effort to make baseball’s past more American and therefore more profitable, but okay, sure.

To be honest, I think it’s only a matter of time before even these barriers to commercialism fall. A few weeks ago, the single-A Hagerstown Suns announced that Bryce Harper’s individual at-bats this season will be sponsored. “Prior to each of Harper’s at-bats, the Hagerstown Suns will announce, ‘Now batting, Bryce Harper, brought to you by Miss Utility, reminding you to call 811 before you dig.’” The press release continues:

“Addressing the fans before Bryce Harper digs in at the plate is a great way to remind those in attendance the importance of contacting Miss Utility before every digging project,” said Matt Ruddo, Director of Marketing, Miss Utility...
Failure to contact Miss Utility, which is a free service, is a leading cause for damage to underground utilities. Striking a single line can cause injury, repair costs and inconvenient outages.

Well, first of all, I did not know such a service existed, so I guess Miss Utility already accomplished something there (and if I ever need to dig up a sidewalk in the D.C. area I will absolutely keep them in mind). Their business’s connection with a Bryce Harper at-bat is tenuous at best, but it got my attention because it’s the first time, at least as far as I’m aware, that individual plate appearances have been sponsored at the ballpark. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in history, Doc Hickory’s Curing Liniment had paid for a few moments here or there; and of course Bill Veeck’s renowned stunt with Eddie Gaedel came on an entire day at the ballpark sponsored by Falstaff Brewery. But pitches, at-bats, catches, actual game action—that’s the final frontier.

Soccer teams already put ads on their uniforms; I suspect baseball teams will at some point. Spider-Man was beaten back, but it seems too much to hope that we’ll never see some kind of advertising on bases. Bryce Harper-style sponsored major-league at-bats can’t be too far off, and we’ll get used to them eventually, like Chivas fans got used to watching their team play in jerseys with “BIMBO” across the front. This is mostly a depressing line of thought, but on the plus side, the possibilities for sponsorship deals are vast and intriguing:

Now pitching: Jonathan Pabelbon, sponsored by Riverdance.
Now pitching: Kyle Farnsworth, sponsored by Sara Lee and Tae-Bo.
Now pitching: Joel Zumaya, brought to you by Guitar Hero.
Now batting: Derek Jeter, brought to you by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief, reminding you to read that chapter on Denial.
Now batting: Albert Pujols, brought to you by the Baptist Church, reminding you that we will take credit for what comes next.
Now batting: Luis Castillo, brought to you by LifeAlert.
Now batting: Evan Longoria, brought to you by Central Florida Pawn and Gun.

I do wonder, in all seriousness, whether there will eventually be one ad too many—some threshold that, once crossed, will prompt people to protest, or to stop watching outright. If two minutes is okay for a commercial break, then why not two minutes and thirty seconds? Once you're there, why not three minutes? With all the ads we already take in at the ballpark, would another one—on a jersey or base, or spoken over the public address system before an at-bat_really be the camel's back-breaking straw? I don't know, though I do have a hunch that somehow A-Rod will be involved.

As Bill Veeck was fond of pointing out, baseball is both a business and a game, so it won't be a sense of tradition or propriety that will slow the creep, if anything does. It'll be the point at which consumers start turning away. Given how much we all put up with now—and how much more fans of the wildly popular NFL have to endure—I think we have a ways to go.

Emma Span is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Emma's other articles. You can contact Emma by clicking here

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