If You Blow Up Disco Records, They Will Come: Memorable Sports Promotions

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Long live sports promotions, those marketing brainstorms that gave us Ted Turner riding an ostrich around Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and, on another occasion, pushing a baseball on hands and knees around the infield.

With his nose.

Turner won that pre-game contest against pitcher Tug McGraw -- that is if one can be declared a winner after suffering so many facial nicks and cuts he appears to have shaved in a dark room with a machete.

Nobody does kitsch like Americans. And frankly, aside from minor league baseball it's a dying industry at our ballparks just when we need it the most.

In this economy where fans are asked to make a choice -- season tickets or sending the kids to college -- we would survive a return to those unsophisticated days of entertaining the customer at the risk of being called bush league.

disco-night
Or -- in the case of Disco Demolition Night, which "celebrated" its 30th anniversary this summer -- at the risk that comes with the marriage of strange bedfellows -- record albums and explosives.

That proved a more combustible pairing than Whitney and Bobby. So there's no need to recreate that.

But the Lake County Captains, a Cleveland minor league farm team, did borrow an idea from the 1970s this past week when it held "Nickel Beer Night." For one hour only, there was a limit of two five-ounce cups of beer per customer.

In 1974, the Indians followed a successful "Beer Night" promotion in Texas with "Ten Cent Beer."

The drunk-fest involved streakers, base stealers (literally) and fans who stormed the field and attacked the opposing team. Cleveland players had to wield bats to come to the aid of the Rangers players. Texas was awarded a forfeit.

Home plate umpire Nestor Chylak, who tried to act nonchalant when a woman ran from the seats to home plate and exposed her breasts to him, later called it, "a complete lack of brain power on the parts of some people."

So those are the parameters. Ten Cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night.

OK, and Ball Night, a promotion held by the Dodgers in L.A. that proved an axiom: don't give people who may become either drunk or irate anything that can be used as a projectile.

In other words, I would espouse neither "Ball Night" or "Javelin Night."

Even the tackiest of sports promotions (and Ted Williams Popsicle Night commemorating the cryogenically frozen baseball great is my winner in that category) are an acknowledgment that the people who run leagues and teams at least recognize that the product on display is not always enough to keep us riveted to our seats.

v-martI'm not sure when I first fully appreciated that glint of recognition. It was long before this past week for sure when the Cleveland Indians, the team that plays where I live, held the standard-for-the-day giveway: Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night.

Martinez is a popular player and three-time All-Star. Bobbleheads are becoming collector's items and thus commodities.

Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night was held Saturday.

The problem was Victor Martinez was traded to Boston Friday.

Timing is everything. At home plate. And in the marketing department.

Maybe I fully realized that something memorable can be artificially created one night during the 1987 Olympic Sports Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the boxing venue one evening, a man in a tuxedo walked to the middle of the ring and bided his time.

Came the announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America please rise for the whistling of our national anthem."

I can't remember the Olympic hopefuls who fought. But anthem whistling? You don't forget that.

A writer friend from Boston heard the anthem played on an accordian in Liberace's home town that same year. Together, we were in Moscow for the 1986 Goodwill Games -- a Turner creation -- when women in babushkas raced baby carriages as part of the Opening Ceremonies.

Even the Soviets seemed to understand what Mike Veeck, who inherited the promotional genius of his father, Bill, meant when he said, "I don't worship at the Church of Baseball; if you play to the purists, the park is going to be 35 percent filled."

empty-seatsLook around at the ballparks in Major League Baseball as the summer wanes right along with hopes of contention. This is prime time for organizations calling up young players from the farm system to look to the minor leagues for inspiration in the marketing departments.

Look to the people who gave us Speed Dating Night (exactly what it sounds like) and Silent Night.

That one was a Mike Veeck special. Some fans covered their mouths with duct tape to help fight the urge to talk. They held up signs such as "Boo" and "Hey Beer Man." As a subtle touch, librarians and golf tournament marshalls replaced the regular ushers. [Photo Credit: The Baseball Collector.]

You can argue the minors are the perfect arena for such schtick. But there's no copyright on fun.

Sometime after he took part in a mattress stacking competition and raced motorized bathtubs -- and before he put on a uniform, told his manager to take the night off and led his 16-loss-in-a-row Braves to a 17th consecutive loss -- Ted Turner had a famous exchange with commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

"Why can't you be like everybody else?" Kuhn asked.

Replied Turner, "Because I'm in last place."

And since the only thing being blown to smithereens were Atlanta's pennant hopes, no harm was done in the making of a promotional legend.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com.

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August 6, 2009 - 11:00am
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