Talking bobbleheads, giveaways, and expectations
The A’s held a 1973 team reunion on April 27. A raft of greats from that repeat championship team were on hand, including Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom, Bert Campaneris, and Reggie Jackson, who was honored with a commemorative bobblehead.
While the weekend-long reunion went well, the bobblehead giveaway didn’t. Only 10,000 bobbleheads were available for the 31,292 in attendance, which left many who had waited long hours sans souvenir. It’s becoming a common theme: schedule a bobblehead day, line up a bunch of fans, someone inevitably goes home unhappy. Subsequent bobblehead days for Coco Crisp (in June) and Yoenis Cespedes (yesterday) attracted sellout crowds, leaving even more fans without a souvenir. It’s gotten to the point where if a fan is not in line several hours before first pitch, chances are he’ll go home empty handed.
A’s marketing guys Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce invited into the business offices in Oracle Arena before today’s game. I spoke with them for 90 minutes about all manner of giveaways and marketing strategy. Smith admitted that Reggie Jackson day was a debacle and that there was major room for improvement. To that end they bumped up the orders for both the Crisp and Cespedes giveaways from 10,000 to 15,000, a move they had to make months ahead of time in order to ensure prompt delivery. It’s all part of the guessing game the A’s front office constantly has to play regarding demand.
For instance, take yesterday’s game. Now that we’ve come to expect sellouts on bobblehead day, it’s natural to want greater quantities of items. Because of the parking situation associated with the circus next door at the arena, it was decided that the gates should open at 2:30, 90 minutes before the normal time. Throughout the day A’s marketing staff including Smith and LaDolce were monitoring the situation. D Gate, which appeared to be most heavily impacted, ran out of bobbleheads at 3:27 PM. However, by that point lines had fully dissipated so if you had walked up prior to 3:30, chances were good you’d get one. Chances were even better at the season ticket entrance, which usually is stocked well enough to handle giveaways past the point when other gates run out.
What wasn’t known about the game was that the A’s had only sold 25,000 tickets to the game 24 hours prior to first pitch. An incredible 10,000 tickets were sold as either walkups or online during that period. That’s rather typical these days due to the rather predictable number of advance tickets sold. Some additional amount were sold after Cespy won the Home Run Derby. The problem is that the A’s have to plan everything for each game well ahead of time, including staffing and giveaways. Staffing can be handled with some flexibility. Because of the lead times associated with giveaways, bobbleheads have almost no flexibility (well, except for the actual bobblehead itself).
Two other examples of this phenomenon occurred in the last several weeks. The first was on Grant Balfour Gnome Day (June 16), which was a full standing room only sellout. Walkup sales were so high that in the week prior to the game, the front office worried if only 25,000 would show up. On the Fourth of July, less than 27,000 showed up for a picnic blanket giveaway, which left the marketing crew (and me) baffled because the annual fleece blanket giveaway day typically goes gangbusters.
Now think about the leadup to yesterday. All sorts of things could’ve dampened attendance. Cespedes could’ve been eliminated early in the HR Derby. He could’ve been injured early in the season. The team might not have been in postseason contention. All of this comes into play, and if you’re working off a steady base of about 10-15,000 attendees, it can be difficult to justify bumping it up more. The easy thing to say is to order 30-35,000 right off the bat. Because of the team’s limited marketing budget, 35,000 bobbleheads would’ve negatively impacted some other promotional day, potentially getting rid of a promotion altogether. I asked about other teams that sell 40,000 or full capacity quantities such as the Brewers or Dodgers. Those teams can afford to do it because marginal tickets they sell in the leadup to the game are usually very expensive ($100 or more), so they have headroom to make up for it. The A’s have dynamic pricing, but even then prices might go up only 20-30% in the process. Sponsors attached to each giveaway have little say over the quantity since the giveaways have to be planned as early as November prior to the following season, and they generally don’t directly fund giveaway purchases. I pressed on with 35,000 items. Smith countered that the last thing the team wants is to have 5,000 left over. When I said the items could just be sold in the team store, he said (I’m paraphrasing here) that if that’s the case, they’re not a good promotional tool. The whole point is of giveaways is to get people in the park and to give them a special memento. Sell overstock in team store would defeat the purpose (though I suppose it would give the naming rights sponsor an avenue, hint-hint). Judging from the response at the Coliseum, it’s working whether the quantity is 10,000 or 15,000. He admitted that there may be room for more in the future, but it would all be linked to ticket sales since everything flows from there.
The chart above, put together by the inimitable James Venes independently from this article two months ago, shows the wide spectrum of bobblehead quantities for the various teams. The Brewers and Phillies give to capacity, the Giants and Dodgers are pretty close. Then again, those four teams surpass 3 million in attendance annually. The A’s are in the middle of the pack as far as the bobblehead-to-capacity ratio goes. Last weekend I attended the Ken Griffey Jr. day at Safeco Field. Despite a sure sellout crowd (47,000), they had only 20,000 bobbleheads. Like it or not, giving items to around 40% of the house is standard practice.
Over the years the A’s have tweaked the types of giveaways they’ve done. Gone are the cheapo caps of yesteryear as few people care about those. Smith showed me a commemorative back-to-back World Series champs pennant from 1974, to which his mother added “1974″ in pen. I asked why there aren’t giveaway pennants anymore. Smith replied that people don’t seem to hold them in any value. I imagine the same thing could be said about the old end-of-season baseball card giveaways (remember how those were sponsored by Mother’s Cookies?). LaDolce had a similar pennant commemorating the A’s 1992 division crown, a moment that reflected the true end of the Haas era. Nowadays the stuff people want are collectibles, with bobbleheads at the forefront.
When I was asked for future giveaway suggestions, I only had one: an A’s fan. Preferably an action figure or figurine with a gold jersey if that can be done. He/she might be donning a green cape or a Reddick luchador mask. I can’t speak to how racially non-specific it should be or to anatomical correctness. I’m sure it can be done. It would be a great acknowledgement of how faithful the hardcore A’s fan is, a kind of olive branch disguised as an in-joke. I’m no marketing genius, but I think it’d be cool. Accessories could be given away at future games. Besides, if the marketing folks have to order these before knowing what will happen with the notoriously volatile A’s roster, a good bet would be one thing Billy Beane can’t trade: a fan.
We talked about a great number of topics including the upper deck tarps, ballpark sites, the Josh Reddick effect, crossing over from being a lifelong fan to working for the team (as both Smith and LaDolce are), what it means to move from an old stadium to a new ballpark, and other matters. They showed me a prototype Green Day trucker hat to be given away at the end of the month, along with a hint about surprise guest they’re hoping to secure in time for the next Star Wars fireworks night. We didn’t talk about costs to produce items, though some of that information can be found elsewhere. I don’t know if our talk or the feedback from this article will effect change. The team has a fan committee that it listens to regularly. Smith and LaDolce were happy to talk to me at length. They read this blog, as do others around the league. Hopefully the kinks can be worked out to a happy medium. Maybe they can institute a ticket system like the kind employed for concert ticket sales or iPhone/iPad launches. There are ways to get these things in the hands of people that really want them. Until then, we’ll keep waiting in line. Thanks to Troy Smith and Travis LaDolce for inviting me into the inner sanctum for a little bit. I’m sure we’ll have more to chat about in due course. Maybe we’ll be talking action figures.
P.S. – The team and bobblehead manufacturers can take months to work on items and still not get them exactly right. Case in point:
Asked Cespedes what he thought of his bobblehead. He smiled, shook his head and, in English, said, "Too black."
— Jane Lee (@JaneMLB) August 18, 2013