When ad patches on Major League Baseball uniform sleeves are going for eight figures per annum, even with helmet ads to be added later to the unprecedented mix of camera-visible ads in pro sports, we thought it would be instructive to hark back to when commercial exploitation on MLB’s fields of play reemerged. Of course, outfield wall signage was routine during what’s often called MLB’s “golden age” from 1920-1960. Still, once TV become a principal revenue source in the 1960s and 1970s, “clean venues” were de rigueur and outfield walls were stripped of everything but distance markers.
Even misremembrances can be remarkably vivid, but as far as we’ve been able to determine, the Milwaukee Brewers were the first MLB team with behind-the-plate signage. John Cordova, former Brewers vice president of marketing, recalls thinking about it when he first started working for the team in 1988 and owner Bud Selig asked him to find new sources of revenue. They did research and found that it would receive around five minutes of TV exposure per inning. During the offseason, Cordova and the Brewers put up faux signs with brands including Miller Brewing and Pepsi, fashioned a video presentation and showed team sponsors what could be a powerful and intrusive new ad medium. Still, it was a time when branding on the outside of MLB jerseys was just beginning to appear. Nobody wanted to cross the line with a property as tradition-bound as MLB.
“Every advertiser said ‘Wow,’” said Cordova, who went on to head Coca-Cola’s vast sports sponsorship portfolio. “Not one wanted to make the first move. They were too afraid of the backlash.”
Home-plate ad signage at MLB ballparks became a common thing in the 1990s after some early reluctance.getty images
So, the Brewers put the presentation and their rate card, which read $60,000 per half inning (then about a third of the cost of a 30-second TV spot) and stuck it in a rarely opened closet. “We decided it was a dumb idea, since no one would buy it,” Cordova said.
In 1992, with the Brewers in the pennant race, Cordova tried it for real, with behind-home-plate signs for the team’s last three home games gratis for Miller, Cordova’s last employer and one of the team’s biggest advertisers. “[GM Sal] Bando told me, ‘If you can bring in money so I can sign more players, I’m for it.’” Cordova still had him go to the clubhouse and get players to sign off. They had proof of concept from a real game.