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Interest Rates Are Low
2004-04-20 14:01
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

Frank McCourt negotiates with the best of them. In a skyrocketing seller's market, the Dodger owner only had to pay "close to the $25-million asking price" for his new Holmby Hills home, according to the Times.

I'm sure Bud Selig approves.

If McCourt ever decides to invite the Dodgers over for dinner to the 20,000-square foot manse, located at the end of a 600-foot driveway (parking included), he can assign each member of the starting lineup his own bathroom, plus one for Jim Tracy.

Even considering that $25 million doesn't buy what it used to (cough), the purchase seems a little extravagant to me.

But what of it?

In the Dodgers' latest ad campaign, on billboards and on television, we are invited to enjoy the adventures a family of five bobbleheads - Bob Bobblehead is the patriarch - going to Dodger Stadium.

It's easy to see how the Dodgers came up with the idea. For a few years now, with no playoff games and few folk heroes for potential consumers to latch onto, the Dodgers have been selling the experience of going to the ballpark. They've been selling the hot dogs and foam fingers, rather than the competition. They've incorporated players like Eric Gagne into the ads, but in a fashion that indicates that it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you attend the game.

Given the perceived disappointment in the Dodger W-L column, the approach has made sense. Add in the fact that in-stadium giveaways attract crowds in much greater numbers than a longshot chase for the wild-card, and you can see why the Dodgers cut out the chase and made the Bobbleheads, rather than the Gagnes, the marketing department's protagonists.

No doubt, the Dodgers have researched where the tipping point is - at what point you have so many giveaways that they become self-defeating. But they don't appear to have reached that tipping point yet.

If there is a flaw in this approach, it's that your team becomes less like a baseball team and more like an amusement park. It's about good times - and people love good times - but it's not about passion.

People don't root for Magic Mountain. Many enjoy going, and a dedicated core will buy season passes. If you can fulfill the promise of a good time, you'll always have some level of success. Magic Mountain is a hugely successful operation.

But people don't connect emotionally with Magic Mountain. They don't follow Magic Mountain on television or the Internet or in the papers. There's no stake in the success of Magic Mountain.

The way the Dodgers are marketed, there's no stake in their success either. It's a good time, but that good time is linked with food and drink and souvenirs - everything that isn't on the field. Consider the irony, if you haven't already, that inevitably, the most consistent cheers at Dodger Stadium are for that rogue item, the beachball.

The difference between Magic Mountain and the Dodgers is that the Dodgers have the potential to get fans invested in the fate of the franchise. Yes, there are a million things to do in Los Angeles, but because of that, there are few things that a broad spectrum of people care about. There is a vacuum of passion in the city and county.

The experience of rooting for a baseball team in Boston or Chicago, where the people care about the team even when it loses, let alone when it wins, could be replicated in Los Angeles. This passion, which engenders higher television ratings, greater concessions - more money - is not absent. It's latent, waiting to be tapped.

Instead of an ad campaign that revolved around bobbleheads, the Dodgers could do an ad campaign that revolved around desperation - the need for the team to win. An ad campaign where a real fan - not an actor or puppet dressed up in phony fashion like a fan - exults in a victory or falls apart at a defeat, and then starts all over again the next day. An ad campaign that says that the Dodgers need this win and explains why they need it. That would say today, "Okay - the Dodgers are 9-3 - unbelievable, but we need to keep it going. Every game counts. Ishii - you better throw strikes." Or something like that.

See, most of you who are reading this site are invested in the Dodgers, thick or thin. And it's that investment, more than anything else, that creates a money-spending, ratings-boosting, lifelong fan.

If an ad campaign to build passion sounds manufactured, consider that nothing is more manufactured than an interest in bobblehead dolls. I'm not putting them down - a cute little toy is, after all, a cute little toy - and it's the perfect gateway drug for the young or new fan. But just because you offer bobblehead dolls every few games doesn't mean you can't offer something more.

A bobblehead doll fills space in a bookshelf. A passion for the team fills space in the soul.

What the Dodgers are missing is the leadership - the ignition - to set that passion aflame. What the Dodgers are missing is the Norma Rae, the Howard Beale. They've got a Tripper Harrison "It just doesn't matter!" philosophy - what if they got Tripper to say "It just does matter!"

There was Tommy Lasorda, for all his flaws, but his time has passed. They need a new diehard.

This is hindsight, but I realize now that Frank McCourt could have been the man.

Others would have been better-suited, but yes, it could have been McCourt. And without going the high-spending, Arte Moreno route.

Rather than repress the doubts concerning his finances, McCourt could have embraced them. He could have said:

"I've worked all my life. I've built up some assets, some property. It's not worth as much as your team, the Dodgers, but it's worth enough for someone to take a chance on me, to loan me the money so that I might fulfill a dream of owning a championship baseball club.

"I could retire now if I wanted. Instead, I'm risking it all, everything I've worked for in my life, to try to make that dream come true. I tried it in Boston, but they said I wasn't ready. Now, I'm ready.

"I'm stretched out to the limit. If this doesn't succeed, I'll go broke. I'll lose it all. I need to make this work. I need this team to win."

And then, McCourt could have rented an apartment. Or sat on a flagpole. He could have set an example of no-holds-barred commitment, taking a chance that others would follow suit.

Instead, with interest rates low, McCourt went house shopping.

I'm not slagging McCourt here - no need to rise to his defense. There are very few flagpole-sitters among us. I'm just saying using him as a way to illustrate that there really is an opportunity to ignite passion in the Dodgers - revenue-generating passion - and it's with some disappointment that I see this opportunity being ignored.

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