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What gets fans to Dodger Stadium? Not the players on the field. Bobbleheads

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When it comes to the Dodgers performance on the field this season, it’s 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 46,194 attendance, and as it turns out, the biggest draw for fans has nothing to do with who’s playing on the field.

When you look at the most-attended Dodger games of the season – excluding Opening Day –  they all have one thing in common: Something is being given away.

  • April 8: 53,231  (zip-up hooded sweatshirt)
  • April 24: 51,699  (Clayton Kershaw bobblehead)
  • April 27: 52, 359 (Hanley Ramirez replica kids jersey)
  • May 11: 51,369 (Mother's Day clutch)
  • May 13: 50,349 (Yaisel Puig 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 Clayton Kershaw bobblehead.

The cheapest seats on Stubhub for the Kershaw bobblehead night were $32 dollars, more than five times what tickets went for the night before, even though there was the same opponent, 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, which 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?”

Slightly more people went to Kershaw bobblehead night (51,699) than went to see the real Kershaw pitch (51,369), when he returned from the disabled list May 11th. (That game also had a promotion - the Mother's Day clutch – which likely boosted attendance considerably) 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

Most major league teams give out door prizes, but few give away as many as the Dodgers, especially when it comes to bobbleheads. The Angels, for instance, do about two-dozen giveaways, compared to the Dodgers’ 38.

Tonight is Hyun Jin-Ryu bobblehead night. Yesterday fans got an Andre Ethier BBQ apron.

This season the Dodgers have more twice as many giveaways as they did five years ago, according to David Siegel, the Dodgers' vice-president of ticket sales. The reason for the increase is simple: Giveaways are as close to a sure thing as there is in baseball to getting people in seats.

“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 every year, get more elaborate. Some of the cost is defrayed by sponsorships. But he’s says the money is well-spent.

“Regardless of how popular the team is, it could be as much as a 15,000-20,000 seat bump depending on what we’re giving away," says David Siegel, the Dodgers Vice-President of Ticket Sales.“Regardless of how popular the team is, it could be as much as a 15,000-20,000 seat bump depending on what we’re giving away," says David Siegel, the Dodgers Vice-President of Ticket Sales. Photo: Ben Bergman/KPCC

The Dodgers field the most expensive sports team in the world, but as this season has illustrated a roster of stars provides no guarantee of winning, so Siegel says 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 

Key to the giveaways is uniqueness: There are only 50,000 or so made, and 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, 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.' Now days 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 just one generic version for each team, or historic figurines, were available. There were fears 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 Pittsburg 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. But the game had to be suspended when fans threw them on the field, angered by manager Tommy LaSorda and right fielder Raul Mondesi were ejected for arguing a call. It was the first National League game to be forfeited in 41 years, all because of a giveaway gone wrong.

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