The 2017 World Series: when the advertising Rubicon was crossed

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I am not one of those people who think that advertising is inherently evil. Not by a long shot. Advertising helps pay my salary and, for my entire life, has made most of the entertainment I consume possible, often free of charge to me. It’s a fact of life in our society. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s entertaining. In certain, narrow cases I worry that it’s destructive, but for the most part I think it’s benign. Everyone’s gotta pay the bills, professional sports and professional sports media included. Most of us have developed pretty decent filters and a healthy skepticism when it comes to commercials.

That said, I feel like we’ve crossed some sort of line with this year’s World Series when it comes to advertising. The line which, generally speaking, had kept the advertising largely separate from the game itself.

I and basically everyone watching the game at home first noticed this last night, soon after the first pitch. Check out the YouTube Ad placement:

That “play” button is smack dab in the middle of the screen, just as it would be for an actual YouTube video. Heck, when a right-handed batter was up, the thing looked like it was actually hovering in front of the umpire’s shoulder or catcher’s head. It was unquestionably designed to be there and YouTube is likely pleased that everyone was talking about it during the game and continues to talk about it today. For fans, however, it was distracting, taking us out of the action for a moment or two on multiple occasions. It may have made me think of YouTube more, but it made me think less of them and less of Major League Baseball for cluttering up my viewing experience.

Later in the game we saw what, I think anyway, was the first visual, in-game, split-screen advertisement in the World Series. Yes, announcers have read promos for years and in-game events ranging from pitching changes to pinch hits to stolen bases to grand slams have long had distinct sponsors. Likewise, almost all local broadcasts have branded graphics which, briefly anyway, are superimposed over the action. Last night, however, there were mid-inning ads for Wendy’s. They took up more than half of the screen, with the game “action” (they occurred during mound visits and brief delays) relegated to a small box on the left.

Like I said, native advertising in a game is not new — last year T-mobile sponsored mid-game breakaways to the studio hosts during the Series — but this split-screen thing seemed to take it to a different level. It wasn’t terribly distracting. Indeed, if baseball wanted to do more of these ads in lieu of the extended commercial breaks we see in the postseason I’d be OK with it. It’s always the case, however, that new forms of advertising are never an “or” proposition. They’re an “and” proposition. As long as companies will pay for the time, we’ll see long breaks and the in-game ads.

The final bit of creeping advertising I noticed is far more troubling to me and, in many ways, rather pathetic. Here are two passages from Game 1 stories on MLB.com, written by two of the very best baseball writers around: Richard Justice and my former NBC colleague Joe Posnanski, respectively:

Verlander has started eight games for his new team, and the Astros have won them all. He pitched once in relief, and Houston won that one, too. Now, after a 3-1 loss on Tuesday in Game 1 of the World Series presented by YouTube TV, the Astros are turning to Verlander again.

and

Yes, Kershaw’s destiny always pointed to here, to Koufax’s mound (albeit somewhat lower), for Game 1 of the World Series presented by YouTube TV, a 3-1 Dodgers win. But the journey turned out quite a bit different than Kershaw expected.

Did you know you were watching “The World Series Presented by YouTube TV,” or were you so dumb that you thought you were just watching the plain old “World Series?” By the same token did you know you were watching the “NLCS Presented by Camping World?” Because you were. If you were ignorant of this you can be forgiven, however, because unlike me you don’t get the MLB press releases announcing the league’s corporate sponsorships.

If companies want to give MLB money for naming rights to a playoff series, MLB can name them whatever they want. Seeing those sponsorships in editorial content at MLB.com, however, is a different matter. On one level, it just makes for clumsy and bad writing. On another level, it makes you question the editorial integrity of MLB.com itself.

MLB.com’s news operation was met with great skepticism when it first launched nearly 20 years ago, with many fearing it would be a league-friendly propaganda outlet like Pravda.  MLB proved the doubters wrong, however, by publishing excellent work by excellent journalists, and it continues to do so today. Will MLB always be as critical of the clubs and the league as fans and some other journalists are? No, but that’s easy to let pass, because in many cases — and on a lot of the team-specific pages — the reporters working for MLB do a better job than the newspaper folks with whom they compete. Indeed, they are often less in the bag for the teams and the league than the newspaper guy is.

This in-story advertising, however, makes one wonder about all of that. It certainly makes one wonder about the disclaimer MLB.com places on every one of its articles which reads “This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.” That has to be a lie, right? Because I know Richard Justice and Joe Posnanski, I have talked to both of them in person and I know damn well that they don’t casually refer to the World Series as “The World Series Presented by YouTube TV.” That was either mandated or inserted by an editor who, in turn, got a memo from someone above them telling them that that is how the Series will be referred to. That diktat likely came directly from the business side of MLB. My guess is that YouTube specifically paid for that kind of branding. It makes one wonder what else is for sale in MLB.com’s news stories.

Like I said at the outset: I’m not naive. I’m not reflexively anti-advertising. Ads serve a purpose and help me make my living. Ads are often, in and of themselves, entertaining (I personally loved the “Dad Support Group” ad for Progressive Insurance last night, even if it hit a bit too close to home). But I feel like Major League Baseball’s pursuit of ad dollars has gotten out of hand. It is intruding upon the game itself and what most of us have come to appreciate as straightforward coverage of the game.

Is such a state of the affairs inevitable? Perhaps. But it’s certainly regrettable.

A’s running out of time to find home in Oakland, Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — The Oakland Athletics have spent years trying to get a new stadium while watching Bay Area neighbors such as the Giants, Warriors, 49ers and Raiders successfully move into state-of-the-art venues, and now time is running short on their efforts.

The A’s lease at RingCentral Coliseum expires after the 2024 season, and though they might be forced to extend the terms, the club and Major League Baseball have deemed the stadium unsuitable for a professional franchise.

They are searching for a new stadium in Oakland or Las Vegas, but they have experienced difficulties in both areas. The A’s missed a major deadline in October to get a deal done in Oakland, and there has been little indication they will receive the kind of funding they want from Las Vegas.

“I think the A’s have to look at it in a couple of ways,” said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner at Las Vegas-based B Global. “Obviously, they have struggled in Oakland to get a deal across the line. It isn’t for a lack of effort. . You have an owner that’s willing to pony up money, you have a club that wants to sit there and figure out a way to make it work, and you keep running into obstacles along the way.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. Oakland, do you want them or not? And if not, where are the A’s going to get the best deal? Is it Vegas? Is it somewhere else? They’ll have to figure that out.”

What the A’s are thinking is a little bit of a mystery. Team President Dave Kaval was talkative earlier in the process, saying the A’s are pursuing two different tracks with Oakland and Las Vegas. But he went silent on the subject several months ago. A’s spokeswoman Catherine Aker said mostly recently that the club would withhold comment for now.

The A’s have been negotiating with Oakland to build a $1 billion stadium as part of a $12 billion redevelopment deal.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao said reaching a deal is important as long as it makes economic sense to the city. Her predecessor, Libby Schaaf, led prior efforts to reach an agreement, but after the city and the A’s missed that October deadline, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations a deal will ever get done.

“The pace in Oakland has not been rapid, number one,” Manfred said at the time. “We’re in a stadium situation that’s really not tenable. I mean, we need to do something to alter the situation. So I’m concerned about the lack of pace.”

Recent California history justifies his concerns. SoFi Stadium in Southern California and Chase Center in San Francisco were built with private money, and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was 90% privately financed.

“And then I think there was some contagion where around the country people realized these deals could be done well privately and could generate a return on investment to those investors,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Why are we throwing public money at it at all?”

That’s also a question being asked in Las Vegas, even though the Raiders in 2016 received $750 million from the Nevada Legislature for a stadium. That then was the largest amount of public money for a sports venue, but it was surpassed last March by the $850 million pledged to construct a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Another deal like the one for Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play, appears unlikely in Nevada. T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2017, was privately financed. An arena planned for south of the Las Vegas Strip also wouldn’t rely on public funds.

Las Vegas, however, has shown financing creativity. Its Triple-A baseball stadium received $80 million in 2017 for naming rights from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Room taxes fund the authority, so it was public money in a backdoor sort of way.

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, who is on the board of the convention authority, has spoken with A’s representatives about their interest in Las Vegas and said he is aware of the club’s talks with other Nevada officials. He said the A’s are taking a much different approach than the Raiders, who identified Las Vegas early as their choice landing spot after many years of failing to get a new stadium in Oakland.

“When the Raiders decided to come to Las Vegas, they had a clear plan,” Naft said. “You had a clear body that was tasked with assessing the worth and the value, and they committed to the destination. I have not seen that from the Oakland A’s at any level, and it’s not really our job to go out and beg them to come here because we have earned the reputation of the greatest arena on Earth. We have put in both the dollars and the labor to make that the case.

“I think I’ve made myself clear, but from conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone on that.”

New Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo “will not raise taxes” to attract the A’s or any other team, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ray, said in a statement. But she said the club could qualify for other ongoing “economic development programs,” which could mean tax breaks similar to what Tesla received in 2014.

Manfred said in December that the A’s relocation fee would be waived if they move to Las Vegas, a savings to the club reportedly of up to $1 billion.

“We’re past any reasonable timeline for the situation in Oakland to be resolved,” Manfred said then.

Naft said Allegiant Stadium filled a hole that went beyond landing an NFL team. It allowed Las Vegas to attract major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four and major concerts such as Garth Brooks and Elton John that “in many cases we would not otherwise have.”

He said he doesn’t believe a baseball stadium would accomplish that, and sports economist Victor Matheson agreed.

“I think there’s a real question about how much people are willing to watch baseball in Las Vegas,” said Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s not like locals don’t have a huge number of entertainment options right now, and it’s not clear exactly how much people might travel to watch baseball in Vegas, either.”

If the A’s truly want to be in Las Vegas, Naft said they need to make that clear.

“I just believe you can’t play destinations against each other,” Naft said. “If you want to come here and you want to be met with open arms, you’ve got to commit.”

Should the A’s fail to reach an agreement in Oakland or Las Vegas, they could consider other destinations such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and Portland, Oregon. Whether they would have the time to explore such options is another question.

Oakland has already shown it will watch the Raiders move to Nevada and the Warriors go across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Las Vegas, Matheson noted, is hardly in a desperate situation. He also expressed caution that Las Vegas could go from being among the largest metropolitan areas without a major professional sports team to among the smallest with three franchises.

“So you’ve gone from kind of being under-sported to being over-sported in a short period of time if the A’s were to go there,” Matheson said.