When it comes to the Los Angeles Dodgers' performance on the field this season, it’s been a disappointment; the team is playing barely above .500.
But if you take attendance, the Dodgers are clear winners, leading the majors with an average 46,088 attendance. As it turns out, the biggest draw for fans has nothing to do with who’s playing on the field.
When looking at the most-attended Dodger games of the season – excluding Opening Day – they all have one thing in common: Something is being given away, whether it be a zip-up hooded sweatshirt, a mother’s day clutch, or the most popular item of all, a bobblehead.
“The bobbleheads are worth more than a ticket,” Tony Manrique exclaimed a few weeks ago, as he walked through a turnstile on the upper deck of Dodger Stadium after picking up his bobblehead honoring ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
The cheapest seats on Stubhub for the Kershaw bobblehead night were $32, more than five times what tickets went for the night before even though the opponent remained the same (the Philadelphia Phillies).
When the Dodgers offered a package selling just tickets to games where bobbleheads were given out, it sold more than every other package combined. The popularity of the giveaway isn't surprising to Stephanie Rosil, who stood on the upper deck of the stadium with her Kershaw bobblehead still safely in its box.
“Everyone collects them," said Rosil. "It’s like bringing a little player home. Who wouldn’t want to take Kershaw home with them?”
Like many fans, Rosil says she chooses which game to go to months in advance based solely on the giveaway.
“If you come to a game you pay the money, you pay for parking, you might as well get something that you like,” said Rosil.
Dodgers look beyond baseball to attract fans
Major League clubs handed out 2.59 million bobbleheads in 2013, twice as many as they did five years ago, according to Sports Business Journal.
No team gives away as many bobbleheads as the Dodgers. David Siegel, vice president of ticket sales, says when it comes to getting people in seats, giveaways are as close to a sure thing as there is in baseball.
“Regardless of how popular the team is, there could be as much as a 15,000-20,000 seat bump depending on what we’re giving away,” said Siegel.
Siegel won’t disclose how much the Dodgers spend on giveaways, which get more elaborate every year. Some of the cost is defrayed by sponsorships. Regardless, he says the money is well-spent.
The Dodgers field the most expensive sports team in the world, but a roster of stars provides no guarantee of winning. Siegel says that means the Dodgers try to to think beyond baseball.
“Obviously, we are tied to that and this is our core business, but we want people to come out here regardless of how the team is playing,” said Siegel.
The toy in the box of crackerjacks
The key to the giveaways is uniqueness: There are only 50,000 or so made, you can’t buy them in the shop, and like the little toy buried in the crackerjack box, there’s no underestimating the value of free prizes. There’s also the nostalgia factor, says Irving Rein, a professor of communications at Northwestern and author of the book "The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace."
"It almost reminds me of a carnival, getting the Kewpie doll," said Rein. “I think it invokes memories. Those giveaways mark relationships. You can say 'I remember three years ago when I took Jimmy to the game for the first time and we got this bobblehead doll.' You can look at the bobblehead in the house and it ties up the brand identity.”
The person credited with inventing sports souvenirs is Danny Goodman, a marketing executive who was hired by the Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley soon after the team moved to Los Angeles. Dodgers team historian Mark Langill says under Goodman, the team hosted batting glove and cap nights in the 1960’s.
"And it’s just evolved over the years," said Langill. "As people are drawn more to watching the game on television it’s important for teams to say, 'Let’s get the people out here.' Nowadays you don’t hear people say they want to see the Phillies or the Giants. It’s 'I want to go Hello Kitty Night.' They don’t care who we play, what time, or what day of the week it is.”
The rise of the bobblehead craze
Ceramic bobbleheads have been sold at ballparks for decades, but before the late 1990’s usually the only figurines available were historic or simply a generic version for each team. There were fears that featuring one active player would be bad for clubhouse chemistry.
The Dodgers' rivals, The San Francisco Giants, are credited with hosting the first modern bobblehead giveaway in 1999, handing out 35,000 plastic Willie Mays statues.
The Dodgers hosted their first bobblehead nights in 2001 with three team legends: Tommy Lasorda, Kirk Gibson, and Fernando Valenzuela.
Langill says it wasn’t until a bobblehead promotion five years ago featuring a popular active player, Manny Ramirez, that he truly saw the power of the giveaway.
"It was a Wednesday afternoon game with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and normally at that type of game you’d be lucky to get 20,000 people," said Langill. "It was just packed. And that really shows you the impact of the right promotion at the right time. It doesn’t matter if you play the game at six in the morning on a Tuesday, people are going to want their prize.”
There have been some notable misses over the years, including a baseball giveaway in 1995 that sold out Dodger Stadium -- The game had to be suspended when fans threw their free baseballs on the field as a protest to then manager Tommy Lasorda and right fielder Raul Mondesi being ejected from the game for arguing a call.
It was the first National League game to be forfeited in 41 years. And all because of a giveaway gone wrong.