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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2001

Baseball has become big billboard

One of the great untold stories is how ballparks are starting to resemble NASCAR tracks

August 11, 2001

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A transplanted Chicagoan living in Arizona did a double-take while watching the Cubs play in San Diego last week.

During the eighth inning there was an ad for the WGN-Ch. 9 news on the billboard behind home plate.

The fan didn't know what to make of it. Why would there be an ad for the Ch. 9 news in San Diego's ballpark?

"Was that an illusion, or was it true?" the fan asked.

Well, it was an illusion, and it was true. It turns out WGN, using sophisticated technology, was able to superimpose the ad behind the plate. Fans at the ballpark were seeing something else.

It's another step in baseball games becoming an endless television commercial. Undoubtedly the time is coming when ads will be superimposed on players' bodies. Budweiser could sponsor David Wells' stomach.

One of the great untold stories is how ballparks are starting to resemble NASCAR tracks. A few years back the marketing men took the playing field, which had been pristine for decades, and transformed it into a billboard.

The worst culprit is that ad behind the plate. It isn't supposed to be seen by anybody in the ballpark. Its sole purpose is to be picked up by the center-field TV camera.

The shot can be distracting during White Sox games when the ad is for Viagra. If it throws the viewer off, imagine what it does for the pitcher.

The ads aren't limited to behind the plate. They are strategically placed in all kinds of spots for the cameras. If you look closely there is a thin ad in the facing of the dugouts in Anaheim.

Arne Harris, the longtime producer/director of Cubs telecasts on Ch. 9, says the worst place is Shea Stadium.

"There's a sign everywhere," Harris says. "They're not dumb. They know how we're going to use our cameras."

Harris doesn't have that problem at Wrigley Field, where there isn't any on-field advertising not now, at least.

His biggest concern has been with the big billboard just behind the right-field wall. Every time Harris wants to use his low third-base camera, the ad comes into the shot.

"The first couple of months I got some calls from the higher-ups saying, 'Arne, that sign is a pain in the neck,"' Harris says. "There's nothing we could do about it."

Harris obviously likes the interior of Wrigley the way it is. He also understands there is big money to be made by having those ad boards behind the plate.

According to sources one company is paying between $125,000-$150,000 per season for one-half inning of exposure on the home-plate ad board at Comiskey Park.

Still, those ads come with a price. Consider what they did at Enron Field in Houston. They tried for the retro-Wrigley look with bricks behind the plate. Then they completely ruined it by putting an ad board there.

It would be even worse if they did the same at Wrigley, given the tradition of the place. But regardless of what anybody says, nothing is out of the question in the drive to pay the bills.

Harris notes that he never has received a complaint letter from a fan objecting to the on-field ads. "People accept it," he says.

Ambiance has been replaced by advertising in our culture. And viewers don't seem to care.

Well, they should.

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