STEALING SIGNS — Heads up, baseball. Computer-generated ‘virtual’ signage is a possibility, and so is the opportunity to pick up some much-needed advertising dollars

The following memo, written by Mickey the Agent and intended exclusively for the Lords of Baseball (a.k.a. The Club Owners), was intercepted by Out There.
Gee, guys, so much for media savvy. The billion-dollar TV contract that enabled CBS to screw itself financially has finally come home to roost, while ABC and NBC cut a no-money-down deal – for which you have to sell the time yourself. You haven’t got a single star under the age of 40 with a hot national endorsement (congrats for saving Nike millions). And the Mets have picked this year to relive 1962.
To top it all off, I now read in Forbes that the American League (the same geniuses who came up with the designated hitter) is letting teams sell advertising behind home plate. The Detroit Tigers have sold a signage package that throws in the backstop and the outfield walls in left and right for roughly $1.6 million a season. Guys, if you’re going to swap tradition so readily for advertising dollars, at least do it with an element of finesse and some awareness of your technological options.
Now I know signage holds a lucrative place in sports media. Every soccer stadium in Europe and Latin America is ringed with advertisements. The goons in the NHL have them lined around the rink. And, of course, you can’t find a tennis or golf star who hasn’t auctioned off some portion of his wardrobe to the highest bidder. But, guys, anybody can sell logo space over home plate or right field. The trick is to be just a bit creative, to figure out how to leverage your assets in ways that let you maximize the returns while minimizing the clutter.
While creativity may be something of a challenge for baseball, you really don’t have much choice but to start offering your advertisers some unique opportunities and values. Despite expansion, the game’s ratings and attendance are down. It’s time to try something new. Besides, aren’t you getting a little tired of hearing about David Stern’s NBA being the most clever and mediawise league?
Here’s the trick: digitally enhanced signage. Instead of selling physical signs around the ballpark, start selling computer-generated ‘virtual’ signs. It’s simple, it gives you a lot more flexibility and the software is making it all cost-effective. You’ve got to start treating both the ballpark and the old ball game as digital canvases where you can paint tasteful testaments to advertisers’ products, services and logos.
With a little practice and the right technologies, it should be easy for the wizards of the broadcast booth to ‘draw’ a Coca-Cola logo on the right field fence for the first three innings and then post a Miller beer sign there for middle-inning relief. Or how about digitally sewing a patch onto the shoulder of the team’s leading batter only when the bases are loaded with two out in the bottom of the ninth? Don’t you think G.M. or Ford or Toyota might be willing to pay a premium to appear tastefully at critical moments during the game?
The possibilities are almost infinite. With these technologies you can easily alter the size, color and/or styles of the imagery. Think of it as pay-per-signage TV. The type size can be enlarged, the colors can be altered and the slogan can change from inning to inning. Viewers might even become curious about what ad change is coming next. Logos could be static, but they could also be animated (if it’s not too distracting). Heck, these are things you do already at the ballpark with those fancy high-tech scoreboards and DiamondVision.
Nike could have its Air shoes ‘swoosh’ across left field; AT&T could show off a different style of phone with each new batter; batting helmets could feature McDonald’s golden arches whenever you wanted. The point is, these digital media give your advertisers a freedom and flexibility they never had before.
The idea gets even better when you consider regionally or nationally broadcast games. You could have national digital enhancements or ‘spot’ enhancements where the local TV station has the right to ‘digiblend’ the logo of a local eatery or auto dealer onto home plate or third base or the top of the dugout. These technologies enable the pie to be sliced – and spliced – in ways that can make money for everybody down the line.
Of course, you don’t want to overwhelm the TV viewers with imagery – but now you have the option to integrate signage into the key moments and key players of the game. Layering in this technology is fairly inexpensive, so your CPMs will be great. Most important, you’d get people thinking about what you have to offer in new and creative ways. Isn’t that worth something?
Gotta hop. I got Tagliabue on the other line. Hey, any chance you guys could do something about Steinbrenner?
Please fax comments to Michael Schrage at 212-536-1416.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)