Off Base: Texas Rangers’ Advertising

Everyone seems to admire the Texas Rangers’ current advertising campaign. There’s just one problem: It isn’t filling seats.

I’ve loved baseball all my life. not just the game, but the whole Field Of Dreams mythology that surrounds it: the individual and family and national collective memories of it; the stat-happy wonkiness of its history; its connection to an America that, though idealized, still represents the best aspirations of our culture. Maybe most of all, I love the way that baseball makes brothers of such natural antagonists as George Will and Keith Olbermann, Rudy Giuliani and David Halberstam.
 
Baseball’s transformative powers even enable me to say something positive about George W. Bush: When he was running the Texas Rangers, the old Arlington Stadium was perhaps the most fan-friendly venue in big league sports, one that actually encouraged families to save money by permitting them to bring in coolers of their own food.

Given all of this, how could I not be completely enamored of the Rangers’ current advertising campaign, the one that taps into the sport’s rich and emotional essence to remind us that we “Could Use Some Baseball”? Fairly easily, because, while the effort does stir up positive baseball memories, it fails on every other level—strategic, executional, and practical.

Let’s start with the strategy behind the effort, now in its second year. Perhaps because recent seasons have been so dismal, the Rangers and their advertising agency, Door Number 3 (DN3) of Austin, chose to forego selling the Rangers brand. A series of billboards wraps the team in baseball’s nostalgic, familial bonds (and I don’t mean Barry). These and similar TV executions aim to connect the viewer to a sweet and sweeping evocation of the game.    

  
I’ll get into the details later, but however well this work may be executed, I believe that it’s based on a flawed premise. According to Prentice Howe, senior vice president and creative director at DN3, “Our goal is to build attendance among former fans, peripheral fans, and new fans, and we’re doing it by selling the baseball experience. We’re offering baseball as an escape to everything that’s right in the world.” 

Yeah, well, a pesky problem with advertising is that, no matter how much people may admire a campaign, it fails if it doesn’t move the goods. The Rangers don’t just need good will, they need butts in seats, and selling baseball generically hasn’t delivered. The entertainment industry, of which sports is an important part, has one clear-cut business goal: to sell tickets. And in sports, this goal is, with rare exceptions, perfectly congruent with product development; i.e., winning teams sell more tickets.

This has certainly proven true for the Rangers, whose run of success in the late 1990s—when they won the Western Division three times—created a momentum that carried past the Millennium. From 1997 through 2001, according to The Baseball Almanac, the team rang up attendance of 2.8 million to 2.95 million each year, averaging 34,733 paying customers per game. 

Then the team stopped winning and attendance slid, averaging just 30,645 tickets sold per game between 2004 and 2007, a decline of nearly 12 percent during a period in which major league attendance set new records each year. This season, according to The Dallas Morning News, Rangers’ ticket sales were headed at press time toward their worst year since 1986.

So, the Rangers are down in an up market. That means, in any business, that it’s time for a top-to-bottom reassessment and almost always an opportunity for advertising to help turn things around. Success on the field turns out to be only part of the formula, because other teams—half of which, by definition, have losing records—are ringing the registers. More than attendance is at stake; every fan who doesn’t buy a ticket is a fan to whom the team can’t also sell overpriced parking, hot dogs, and licensed merchandise.

According to AC Nielsen & Co., in 2007 the Rangers spent about $3.5 million on advertising (not counting direct mail and “trade-outs” with media). What did they get for their money? They don’t know. “We did not specifically do any [research] about or on the campaign during its creation” or since it has hit the market, says Kelly Calvert of the team’s front office.

CREATING A PERSONALITY 

Beyond pitching wildly, the Rangers are throwing their box office a greater curve than mediocre performance (as of this writing, they’re in third place in their division, playing .515 baseball). Although the Rangers appear relatively clean, selling baseball tradition and family values asks fans to overlook the sport’s current realities of scandal, steroids, and brats with bats. This campaign for a mediocre team asks fans to think, but hopes that they won’t think too much. Of course, if the Rangers go on a genuine hot streak, fans will show up without intellectualizing anything but the next win.

The team’s outdoor billboards, written by DN3’s Phil Davies and art directed by Taylor Harkey, support the “You could use some baseball” theme with such clever headlines as:

›› Memories, Getch’er Memories
›› Take Your Minors to the Majors
›› Ever Kiss Your Wife on a Jumbotron?

Fine writing, obscured a little by what I feel is a corny and confusing background representing the seams of a baseball and displaying the latest in a long tradition of ghastly team logos that are not the fault of the agency. 

What the Rangers need (besides pitching) is a stronger advertising strategy. One thought might be to create a personality for the team. When you hear the name New York Yankees, love ’em or hate ’em, you know who they are. Same with the Dallas Cowboys. You know who they are literally because it’s pretty much the same personality: a cocky bunch of extroverts who, most years, live up to their swagger by delivering on the field. That’s not completely coincidental: according to ESPN, the Yankees are the most valuable MLB team and the Cowboys rank first in value in the NFL.

OK, these are exceptional, winning franchises, but certain images flash across your mind even when you hear the names Cardinals, Cubs, or Orioles. Old franchises, you say? Well, how about those loveable screwups, the Seattle Mariners? Born in 1977, five years after the Rangers, they sell an average of nearly 2,700 more tickets per game, according to the Baseball Almanac.

Face it. When it comes to personality, the Rangers are a rainout. The right advertising could change that.  

Something else that effective advertising could do would be to make the team and the game seem more exciting. We live in a football town and, as the late George Carlin pointed out so memorably, baseball is intrinsically more peaceful and pastoral than football.  Nonetheless, there’s a lot of action, athleticism, grace, and heroics in baseball. The Rangers’ current campaign captures none of it.

You know who’s doing it right? The Dallas Stars. Their agency? DN3. Same agency, same ownership, some difference. The Stars came into this market in 1993 with a sport that many locals had barely heard of, and they’ve won us over.

 
As with the Rangers, the heart of the Stars’ effort is on billboards, but their boards have helped create a personality for the team while remaining true to the spirit of the sport. Featuring the theme Come Into the Cold, they’re all attitude, reveling in the freewheeling roughhouse that is hockey while making fun of competing sports.

Advertising can’t do much to help a team win, but well-executed work applied to a sound selling strategy hits the long ball by making people think about the sport, the team, and the next game. Sadly, the Rangers campaign strikes out.

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