The Associated Press
5/5/04 9:08 AM



The Wall Street Journal

Who's on first? That old baseball question has a new answer: Spider-Man.

In a move that has purists howling, Major League Baseball has agreed to decorate its bases -- and pitching-mound rubbers and on-deck circles -- with a spider-web pattern as part of a promotion for the release of Sony Corp.'s "Spider-Man 2" next month.

The superhero sequel is set to open in theaters June 30. "'Spider-Man 2' Weekend" will start Friday, June 11, and all 15 MLB teams playing at home have agreed to participate for one or more games.

The deal is baseball's latest attempt to develop a splashier national marketing image. "In an ultracompetitive sports-entertainment environment, you have to take risks," says Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president for business.

Outfield walls have been billboards since the 19th century. In the 1990s, the Florida Marlins painted their stadium's foul poles to look like pencils for a Office Depot sponsorship. But the Spider-Man promotion is believed to be the first time ads will appear on the bases. "It's not something we've ever come across," says Claudette Burke, a reference librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Under a design nearing approval by MLB, the center of the top of first, second and third bases will be adorned with a 7.5-inch-square "Spider-Man 2" logo consisting of black and yellow webbing against a bright red background. Home plate will remain white.

The move is sure to alienate fans who view the baseball diamond as hallowed ground. Baseball historian John Thorn calls the field "a sort of a magic circle to which rules accrue and adhere. And if you violate the terms, you run the risk of offending the gods."

NBC Sports and HBO broadcaster Bob Costas says ads on the bases will "take away that whole beautiful vista of a ballpark" -- and also reflects baseball's schizoid relationship with its past. "On the one hand they sell history whenever it suits them, and on the other hand they disrespect it," says Mr. Costas, author of "Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball." "It isn't a matter of treating the game like it's religion. But I think people have lost the understanding of what the dignity of something is. Not everything is for sale."

The National Hockey League lets teams sell ads embedded in the ice. But neither the National Football League nor the National Basketball Association has given field or court space to advertisers. "The game itself is sacred, and we're not going to tinker with how it is played or perceived," says an NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy.

MLB executives say they respect baseball's traditions but need to attract younger fans. As for the critics, MLB President Bob DuPuy says, "These are the same people that didn't like interleague play and didn't like the wild card" playoff format. Having decorative bases "really doesn't have an effect on the game within the foul lines," he says. "It's not like we are going to have a red-and-black ball. The game itself won't be affected."

MLB's willingness to alter the field is part of the larger pressure across sports to accommodate sponsors. MLB has been viewed as lagging in pop-culture sponsorship, especially compared with the NFL and NBA. "Baseball is recognizing they have value in being a selling tool for these big sponsors," says Tom Boyd, an associate professor of sports marketing at California State University at Fullerton. In addition to promotional bases, pitching rubbers and on-deck circles, the Spider-Man deal includes stadium signage, movie trailers on scoreboards, Spider-Men climbing light towers and giveaways like masks and foam hands.

Geoffrey Ammer, world-wide marketing president for Sony's Columbia/TriStar Motion Picture Group, says executives originally wanted to outfit the netting behind home plate with Spider-Man webbing. That was scrapped because it would have distracted pitchers and fielders, and the idea was expanded. According to a person familiar with the deal, Columbia/TriStar is spending $3 million to $4 million on the promotion, including television ad time. Mr. Ammer declined to discuss spending.

Teams' participation in the promotion is voluntary. Initially leery, some team marketing directors called other clubs to gauge whether the spider-web bases crossed a line. "We all wondered about that a little bit," says Patrick Klinger, marketing vice president for the Minnesota Twins. But, he says, "it's coming from Major League Baseball. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us."

Columbia/TriStar insisted on participation by big-market teams. One factor that helped persuade clubs to play ball: more money. Teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will receive more than $100,000 each, while those in other markets will get around half that, club executives say. Jacqueline Parkes, MLB's senior vice president of marketing and advertising, says payments depend on the level of participation and the value of the markets to the studio.

As a result, the deal will contribute to revenue disparities among teams, one of baseball's biggest problems. Still, a prepackaged promotion with guaranteed cash was a big draw. "It's found money," says Jim Bloom, consumer-marketing director for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Another plus: Teams in smaller towns get to be part of a national event. "We don't get a lot of lights in the sky for movie premieres in Kansas City," says Charlie Seraphin, the Kansas City Royals' vice president for sales and marketing.