Baseball has a new epidemic of big-headed ballplayers to contend with. No, it's not a new steroid era — it's an influx of tiny, plastic bobblehead figurines.
Baseball teams are increasingly turning to promotional events as a means to boost attendance and revenue, and leading the way in the giveaway game is, of course, the ubiquitous bobblehead. But with bobbleheads becoming ever more pervasive — practically everyone on a team, from the star player down to the bat boy, gets the bobblehead treatment now — they're at risk of losing the offbeat appeal that made them a commodity in the first place. That, then, raises the question: Have we reached peak bobblehead?
The bobblehead craze can be traced back to 1999, when the San Francisco Giants handed out 35,000 Willie Mays dolls to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Candlestick Park. Then little-known, the seemingly hydrocephalic figurines proved to be immensely popular, and so quickly caught on across the league. In a sign of the bobblehead's incredible rise, teams handed out 2.59 million of them last year alone, according to SportsBusiness Journal — almost double the number given away four years prior.
For teams, the allure of bobbleheads is clear: They're cheap to manufacture, and they add an off-field incentive for fans to pack the ballpark. That attendance boost is nothing to scoff at either. A 2006 study, published in the American Journal of Business, determined that bobbleheads boosted attendance league-wide by an average of nearly 6,700 fans. A more limited, though more recent, analysis by SportsBusiness Journal found that attendance for Dodgers games last year was 18 percent higher on Tuesdays with a bobblehead giveaway than on Tuesdays without one.
Those findings dovetail neatly with the league's rising attendance and revenue trends.
For all the talk about baseball dying out as a major American sport, MLB enjoyed its sixth-best attendance ever last year. Meanwhile, revenue has grown from $1.4 billion back in 1995 to an estimated $8 billion today. And with a lucrative new TV deal set to kick in next year, that figure is expected to rise yet again.
Though cheap plastic dolls and other promotional kitsch certainly don't account for the entirety of that trend, they've at least had some role in bolstering baseball's robust health. Game-day promotions "are one of the most effective tools that MLB management can utilize to impact game attendance," said Wayne DeSarbo, executive director of the Center for Sports Business and Research at Penn State University, adding that "there is much to gain for MLB to optimize its promotional efforts."
However, there is a danger in teams putting all their bobbleheads eggs in one basket. Once a novel oddity, bobbleheads could easily lose their appeal now that they've become so omnipresent and unimaginative.
That 2006 study in the American Journal of Business actually warned of this possibility, saying, "It is likely, however, that bobbleheads represent the current fad in baseball memorabilia collectibles and that their popularity will wane and they will be replaced by a new fad."
"The message here is that team marketers must constantly work to identify hot new items, however short-lived their popularity, which will provide high-impact promotions," the study concluded.
Indeed, teams are already heeding that advice and loading up their promotional calendars with more far-flung, non-nodding giveaways. Oakland handed out some fantastic Coco Crisp cereal bowls last year, while Tampa Bay gave fans an unnerving Don Zimmer teddy bear.
The trend toward a mixed bag of swag is expected to continue this year, too. The Rays will give fans a DJ Kitty hat and this puzzling mashup of a famous toy and their manager:
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) February 18, 2014
The Mariners, meanwhile, will hand out 20,000 fedoras and a beard-hat onesie:
I know it is Seahawks season but get excited, Mariners plan retro beard hat night on April 25th pic.twitter.com/UdekfeB8Y8
— KING 5 News (@KING5Seattle) January 23, 2014
The Dodgers, with their money factory, will dish out more cool swag than anyone. Their promotional calendar includes a Yasiel Puig Fathead, a slick sweatshirt, a welcome mat, and a fleece blanket — and that's just a sampling from April. Later giveaways include an inflatable chair, a replica throwback Brooklyn Dodgers jersey (!), headphones, and, of course, plenty of bobbleheads.
Non-giveaway promotions — post-game shows, fireworks and the like — are also on the rise, increasing by almost 20 percent in 2013 from the year before. And that trend will continue this year, too. For instance, Mets fans can assuage the sting of defeat this summer by sticking around after games to catch Boyz II Men, Huey Lewis and the News, and 50 Cent.
Bobbleheads still reign supreme in the world of promotional gewgaws, but their dominance may wane as teams find new fads to get fans through the turnstiles. Perhaps baseball-themed pogs are due for a comeback.