When ad patches on Major League Baseball uniform sleeves are going for eight figures per annum, even with helmet ads to be added later to the unprecedented mix of camera-visible ads in pro sports, we thought it would be instructive to hark back to when commercial exploitation on MLB’s fields of play reemerged. Of course, outfield wall signage was routine during what’s often called MLB’s “golden age” from 1920-1960. Still, once TV become a principal revenue source in the 1960s and 1970s, “clean venues” were de rigueur and outfield walls were stripped of everything but distance markers.
Even misremembrances can be remarkably vivid, but as far as we’ve been able to determine, the Milwaukee Brewers were the first MLB team with behind-the-plate signage. John Cordova, former Brewers vice president of marketing, recalls thinking about it when he first started working for the team in 1988 and owner Bud Selig asked him to find new sources of revenue. They did research and found that it would receive around five minutes of TV exposure per inning. During the offseason, Cordova and the Brewers put up faux signs with brands including Miller Brewing and Pepsi, fashioned a video presentation and showed team sponsors what could be a powerful and intrusive new ad medium. Still, it was a time when branding on the outside of MLB jerseys was just beginning to appear. Nobody wanted to cross the line with a property as tradition-bound as MLB.
“Every advertiser said ‘Wow,’” said Cordova, who went on to head Coca-Cola’s vast sports sponsorship portfolio. “Not one wanted to make the first move. They were too afraid of the backlash.”
Home-plate ad signage at MLB ballparks became a common thing in the 1990s after some early reluctance.getty images
So, the Brewers put the presentation and their rate card, which read $60,000 per half inning (then about a third of the cost of a 30-second TV spot) and stuck it in a rarely opened closet. “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 behind-home-plate signs for the team’s last three home games gratis for Miller, Cordova’s last employer and one of the team’s biggest advertisers. “[GM Sal] Bando told me, ‘If you can bring in money so I can sign more players, I’m for it.’” Cordova still had him go to the clubhouse and get players to sign off. They had proof of concept from a real game.
Around the same time as Cordova, TurnkeyZRG CEO Len Perna was also charged with finding new revenue as the executive vice president of the Ilitch sports empire, which included the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers. Ilitch was pushing for more traditional signage, since the park had little, if any. When Perna estimated the revenue potential in behind-the-plate signage at between $3 million and $5 million per season, Ilitch got interested quickly. But it would require approval across MLB ownership.
“We’re the newest ownership in baseball, and this is the first issue I am going to bring to other owners,” Mike Iltich said to Perna. “I had to convince him that he was known as a marketer, and this was a progressive idea,” Perna said. With the help of former NHL President John Ziegler, they took it to the MLB Winter Meetings in 1992 and pushed it through for the Tigers and Brewers to test during the next season.
“The only person vocally against it was George Steinbrenner,” said Perna. “He thought it was a slippery path to a bad place and just didn’t think there should be signage on MLB fields.”
Cordova’s recollections are that the politics were intense, with Selig doing much of the lobbying.
“It was a bloodbath,” Cordova said. “There was lots of backlash about overcommericalization, but Bud was a consensus guy, so he built some.”
There were owners who hated the incursion of ads in camera view, but others objected for purely commercial reasons — brands competing with their sponsors would be getting camera time.
The Brewers and Tigers started with it for the 1993 season and over the next few seasons, objections disappeared. Perna recalls more early concern about behind-the-plate signs interfering with the infielders’ viewing of the ball. At one point, he had Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell take grounders in front of the proposed signage as an experiment. While some umpires later ordered signs in white covered up, player complaints before and after were minimal. Still, such was MLB’s aversion to change that former MLBPA COO Gene Orza told ESPN at the time, “If clubs want to turn what many people regard as their cathedrals into disco parlors, that’s really their decision.”
Revenue made the decision easy. “There were certainly a lot of politics at the beginning,” said Jerry Cifarelli, founder and former president of signage company ANC Sports, who helped introduce signage into MLB when he was with Dorna from 1989-97. The NBA had been selling courtside signage since 1990.
“Once people realized the advertising values, they had to do it,” said Cifarelli. “Even then, it was equal to the salary of a starting infielder. In big markets, you could get $250,000 to $750,000 per half inning.”
While Steinbrenner originally detested the idea, after an early Yankees series in Detroit, “we got a call from the Yankees asking for our economics,” said Perna. “We were pretty sure who it was watching that series on TV.”
Once approved, Perna said it took about a day or two to sell out the inventory, which the Tigers sold by the minute, not the half inning, as customary.
“Especially by the standard of the time, it was eye-opening branding,” Perna said. “It was probably the easiest thing we ever sold, because it was just so different. Our biggest problem was we couldn’t do deals for more than a year. No one was sure it was going to be around for the next season.”
Remember that when you hear about an MLB patch going for more than an MLB team’s naming-rights deal.
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com