How does MLB top the 2008 All-Star Game in New York, which was played in old Yankee Stadium in its final season of existence? Bring in President Obama, work with marketing partners to commit their activations to giving back to charitable causes and create so much energy that Fox's broadcast ad inventory sold out two weeks faster than the 2008 event from New York.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted July 10, 2009)
When Major League Baseball held its 2008 All-Star Game in New York in the old Yankee Stadium in its final season of existence, many felt that an event merging legends of the past with all-stars of the present and future in The House That Ruth Built could not be surpassed. And, in fact, game in New York had the best TV ratings for an MLB All-Star Game in a decade, according to Fox. In 2009, for its 80th All-Star Game, MLB has been able to set new standards: President Barack Obama will become only the fourth sitting President in history, and the first since Gerald Ford in 1976, to toss the first ceremonial pitch in an All-Star Game. President Obama also will join the four living past Presidents — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — in a pre-game video presentation, marking the first time all five of the living U.S. Presidents will participate together during a sports event.
Baseball and its partners have made President Obama's call to service in his inauguration speech, in which he asked all Americans to give back to the country and their communities, the focal point of their All-Star Game efforts. The seven-minute presidential video will be part of a celebration honoring 30 men and women who have been designated “All-Stars Among Us” for their "selfless acts of giving and service to their communities," according to MLB. Donations and public awareness will be generated during All-Star Game events on behalf of Stand Up To Cancer, a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation established by a group of media, entertainment and philanthropic leaders whose lives have been affected by cancer in significant ways, which has raised more than $100 million over the past year; the RBI Program Presented by KPMG, designed to promote interest in the sport, increase the self-esteem of disadvantaged children and encourage kids to do well in school; the Boys & Girls Club of America and other organizations.
The All-Star Game, which will be televised nationally by Fox, with ESPN Radio providing exclusive national radio coverage and MLB.com providing extensive online coverage, has been so highly anticipated that Fox said advertisers bought out the game's 73-unit ad inventory about two weeks ahead of last year. Major advertisers include Pepsi, sibling Gatorade, Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Holiday Inn, State Farm, Disney, Taco Bell and MasterCard. John Brody, svp-corporate sales & marketing, Major League Baseball, spoke to www.NYSportsJournalism.com about the All-Star Game, the economy, President Obama and MLB's message.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The 2008 All-Star Game in New York seemed to raise the bar pretty high as far as this type of event. What has MLB done to differentiate and set new standards for the game in St. Louis?
John Brody: The message is more important than anything we have ever done as a sport from a marketing perspective. In these times that are so challenging, it is all about stepping up and giving back. One of the things that gets lost in a lot of the reporting is what it was like to sell in this [financially stressful] time period. I actually think we were the first sport to go through this in a specifically unique way: Our entire off-season, our entire sales season, our entire planning season was done in the backdrop of this economic change. The last out of the 2008 World Series was in October, which was the beginning of the change of the economic climate. October through March, when we were doing all the planning for the 2009 season, the economic change was the backdrop that we were dealing with.
NYSJ: How did that impact plans for the 2009 All-Star Game?
Brody: We realized quickly that this year we had to lead and we had to listen to President Obama's call to give back to the country and to the community. We had to look at what we are as a social institution. We felt, and you're seeing the articulation of that now, we needed to be much more than just about baseball. We kept saying, "We have to go beyond that." And that led us to our whole 2009 marketing campaign - and credit [MLB svp/CMO] Jacqueline Parkes for putting together a great campaign - "This is Beyond Baseball" (done in conjunction with McCann-Erickson, New York) to focus on baseball's place as a social institution. And we could only do this, and we could only be as connected to this as we have become, because our partners bought into it. We had a summit in St. Louis when it was a lot less hot and steamy [than it is now] right before the season started. And we said to them, Here's what we are thinking, here's what we want to do. What do you think? And what we got was an overwhelmingly supportive response saying, "We're in." And the way they have come in is, we think, really says a lot about who they are as partners of MLB. So what you'll see is our overall message about going beyond baseball and what baseball is as a social institution being supported by our partners.
NYSJ: President Obama will be only the fourth sitting President in history, and the first since Gerald Ford in 1976 to toss the first ceremonial pitch at the All-Star Game. How did that happen?
Brody: This is not about getting together for a photo opportunity or going to one event. It is about an entire week of activities and a groundswell effort around everything connected with the All-Star Game, leading to the game itself, with President Obama throwing out the first ceremonial pitch. It started with the President asking during his inauguration in January for all Americans to give back and answer the call for service. That led to the White House and Major League Baseball coming together. When we presented plans about what we and our partners were working on for the All-Star Game, [he White House] knew this was something vital to President Obama's call to service. It's also about the tremendous pageantry of having the President of the United States come to the All-Star Game and throw out the ceremonial first pitch (joining John F. Kennedy in 1962, Richard Nixon in 1970 and Ford as the only sitting Presidents to do so). It doesn't hurt that he hasn't been shy about saying that he is a huge fan of Major League Baseball. He proudly wears his Chicago White Sox baseball cap (President Obama has a residence in Chicago). We would like to replace that with an All-Star Game cap if he wants to wear one [during the ceremony].
NYSJ: President Obama also has been vocal in his support of reinstating baseball in the Olympics, which the International Olympic Committee will vote on later this year.
Brody: It all starts and ends with service, and in between we have a president who is a huge fan of the game. He understands that sports have a special place, not just as athletic competition but as social institutions and indicators of public health and happiness. I think he understands that Major League Baseball is a leader, as we saw during The Great Depression, with Jackie Robinson, after 9/11. He realizes what baseball means to America.
NYSJ: What do you see as some of the upcoming highlights, in particular relating to the "beyond baseball" message?
Brody: Last year in New York we had a concert on the Green Lawn in Central Park (starring Bon Jovi) that was free to 60,000 people. We felt that was a way to give back to New York and to make everyone feel part of the All-Star Game celebration. This year, going beyond baseball for the All-Star Game starts with the All-Star Charity Concert presented by Pepsi on July 11 in St. Louis starring Sheryl Crow. It will be free to fans, and will feature a $1 million donation by MLB to Stand Up To Cancer. It also will be streamed free on MLB.com. Fans will also be able to make donations to Stand Up To Cancer at the concert or online. By putting in on MLB.com, it gives fans of baseball everywhere an opportunity to be part of the event and to be part of the going beyond theme.
MasterCard has changed its "Hit It Here" promotion, which previously rewarded a fan in attendance at the game, so that now there is the potential for MasterCard to donate as much as $2 million to Stand Up To Cancer if a player hits one of their [three] signs in Busch Stadium with a home run either during the State Farm Home Run Derby [on July 13] or during the All-Star Game. State Farm also answered the call during the Home Run Derby. They will continue to award $17,500 for every gold ball that is hit as a home run (the gold ball is used after a player records the ninth of his alloted 10 outs per at-bat) to the Boys & Girls Club of America. But State Farm will also donate $5,000 for every home run hit by every player during the Home Run Derby to the Boys & Girls Club. Holiday Inn, in addition to its marketing for the All-Star Game, will use one of its in-stadium signs at Busch Stadium as a hit tracker. The American League will be hitting for the Boys & Girls Club and the National League will be hitting for the RBI Program Presented by KPMG. Whichever team gets more hits wins $50,000 and the other team gets $25,000 to donate.
NYSJ: How are MLB partners activating with marketing support?
Brody: More than 45% of the broadcast inventory on Fox for the All-Star Game is from Major League Baseball sponsors. Talk about answering the call, they have done so by supporting the game by purchasing time during the national broadcast. That reaffirms that they support Major League Baseball whether times are good or times are challenging, and that baseball is an important part of how they market to their consumers. In St. Louis itself, Pepsi has a dominating presence with about 600 banners to support its sponsorships. There are Budweiser All-Star Game billboards throughout the area. State Farm has placed large Home Run Derby gold balls throughout the city in high-traffic areas. And there is a "sponsor zone" right across the street from Busch Stadium where all of our national partners have a presence, and our partners are well represented at FanFest at America's Center.
NYSJ: What was the response to MLB's alliance with Disney and its G-Force movie?
Brody: The partnership we have with Disney in support of its movie, G-Force, has had incredible response. The G-Force logo was on more than 20 million all-star ballots and the related ticket giveaway has drawn tremendous reaction. If a player hits a grand slam home run during the game, Disney will give a free ticket good for the movie's opening day (July 24) to the first 1 million people who have registered online and also to everyone in attendance at Busch Stadium who receives and redeems a special pass being handed out.
NYSJ: Only one grand slam has been hit in All-Star Game history, in 1983 by Fred Lynn, so the reality of the grand slam giveaway actually happening seemed like a long shot when it was unveiled earlier this year. But Albert Pujois of the host St. Louis Cardinals already has four grand slams this season (as of July 9), and MLB is on a pace to hit more than 200, which would shatter the one-season record of 176 in 1977 (according to the Elias Sports Bureau). So it could happen.
Brody: Imagine the excitement in Busch Stadium not only if someone does hit a grand slam but if it is Pujois who does it. Talk about giving back.
NYSJ: What does all of this tell you about the state of baseball and the relationship MLB has with its marketing partners.
Brody: Our partners get it and we are fortunate to have partners who are willing to make this effort. And hopefully it will leave a lasting impression on fans who attend and who watch on TV the Home Run Derby, the All-Star Game and the other events. It makes us feel that we are more than business partners, that we are business partners who understand that we have a responsibility. And we understand that these aren't easy times to get partners to activate and spend money on marketing, to give back and put their dollars, time and effort to work for baseball. Those are things that aren't easy, and we don't take that for granted.