The tangled web of sports and advertising

Updated: May 6, 2004, 1:43 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

If Giants slugger Barry Bonds hits a home run against the Baltimore Orioles in their mid-June matchup, he'll have to step on Spider-Man's web to round the bases.

Out by a foot -- or is it a web? "Spider-Man 2" ads are coming to selected ballparks' bases well in advance of the film's June 30 release.

As part of a marketing alliance between Major League Baseball Properties, Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios, webbed logos of the upcoming film "Spider-Man 2" will appear on bases and on-deck circles in 15 stadiums of teams playing host to interleague games June 11-13.

The news, first reported by the Wall Street Journal in its Wednesday editions, comes a day after presidential candidate Ralph Nader called the placement of Ricoh logos on the uniform and helmets of players during the season-opening series between the Yankees and Devil Rays in Tokyo "a greedy new low."

Last weekend, 10 jockeys in the Kentucky Derby wore sponsors' patches, ranging from 20th Century Fox to the resort owned by the Miccosukee Tribe, which already has one of the largest signs in Major League Baseball -- it covers the majority of the left-field wall at Pro Player Stadium. The stadium, ironically, is named after a company that filed for bankruptcy in 1999.

National Hockey League teams have sold advertising on the dasherboards that ring the ice and have permitted teams to sell logos to appear on the ice itself. Though the NFL does not allow corporate advertising to appear on playing surfaces, Pepsi will pay the league $360 million over the next eight years for the rights to place Gatorade coolers, and cups and towels with the sports drink maker's logo, on sidelines.

And while it appears a deal that puts the "Spider-Man 2" ad promotion on the bases is yet another sign that everything is for sale, Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer, insists that fans should not expect to be bombarded with advertising when watching games.

"This is not a step toward wallpapering the ballpark," said DuPuy, noting that MLB has placed logos on bases in the past for All-Star and World Series games, though league officials have never specifically sold the space before.

DuPuy said Columbia Pictures originally wanted to put "Spider-Man 2" webbing on the netting behind home plate, but the request was turned down for fear it would distract players. Pitching rubbers and home plate will be adorned with "Spider-Man 2" branding before games, but will be replaced with standard white plates once the games start.

The fact that the "Spider-Man 2" logo will actually grace on-deck circles might cause more of a stir at the ballpark than a television vantage point. Virtual signage, advertising that is digitally inserted in the broadcast feed but does not appear at the stadium, has been commonplace -- especially in the area behind home plate -- for the past four seasons.

Foam fingers and masks with the "Spider-Man 2" logo will be given away at select ballparks. The movie is scheduled to open in theatres June 30.

"This is the perfect alliance between two quintessential national pastimes -- baseball and movie-going," Geoffrey Ammer, president of worldwide marketing for the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, said in a statement.

Others weren't so sure.

"Some will say this reinforces the convergence of sports and entertainment, while others will suggest the only thing converging is bad taste," said David Carter, principal of The Sports Business Group, a sports marketing firm.

Baseball will receive about $3.6 million in a deal negotiated by Major League Baseball Properties with Marvel Studios and Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Inc., a high-ranking baseball executive told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

"I guess it's inevitable, but it's sad," Fay Vincent, a former baseball commissioner and former president of Columbia Pictures, told AP. "I'm old-fashioned. I'm a romanticist. I think the bases should be protected from this."

The teams will get a piece of the pie from the promotion. Large-market clubs like the Yankees and the Red Sox reportedly will receive more than $100,000 each through the promotion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"The fans are already becoming used to corporate logos being a part of their sporting events," said Jeff Chown, managing director of The Marketing Arm, an entertainment and sports marketing consultancy firm. "The purists will say that something like this is not good for the game, but something like this also helps promote the game."

In truth, the sports world is only mirroring the rest of society. Beverage companies often pay schools to allow installation of their vending machines. Just last month, video game publisher Activision and Nielsen, which measures television ratings, formed a partnership to monitor corporate advertising in video games.

The latest partnership could open the door to even more advertising opportunities, but DuPuy says fans should not be upset by the alliance.

"This does nothing to impact the play of the game," DuPuy said. "The base doesn't know that it has a corporate name on it, nor does the foot that hits the base."

Although there has been much ado about the potential for the league to sell advertising on uniforms, DuPuy says "we have nothing on the table."

Said Carter: "Imagine how much worse it could have been -- especially in San Francisco -- if baseball had partnered with a studio for the sequel to The Incredible Hulk."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter

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