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From Cracker Jack prize to jackpot

The Major League Baseball team that should need the least promotion is at it again.

Chicago Cubs officials, who have established a reputation for being among the most innovative marketers in sports, are ushering in the era of the limited high-value giveaway -- hoping to sell tickets with the lure of a limited promotional item.

This season, the Cubs plan to give away 1,200 jerseys, each ranging in value from $180 to $300, at 12 separate games. The first 20,000 fans entering the gate on the day of the game will receive a scratch-off card for the chance to win the jersey of the day. The jerseys include replicas of Greg Maddux's 1992 jersey, a 1958 Ernie Banks road uniform and the 1984 jerseys of Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe.

"We've gone with the less-is-more philosophy here," said John McDonough, the Cubs' vice president of marketing and broadcasting. "We're trying to be unique and walk down a different path. I think this will show that the era where we'd give away things in volume is coming to an end."

McDonough said the Cubs were happy with the results of trying the high-priced giveaway last season when the team offered fans at select games the chance to win 5,000 autographed baseballs of Cubs greats.

"I'm pretty sure nobody complained that we were being unfair," said McDonough, who came up with the idea of offering Beanie Babies as giveaways at major league games in 1997.

Winners of the jerseys, made by Majestic and Mitchell & Ness, also will receive an authentic autographed card of that player. Those that don't win will have the opportunity to buy the jersey at its full retail price at Wrigley Field concession stands.

While the cost of the item is greater, due to the limited nature of the giveaway, the price to put on the promotion is about the same as a giveaway nights in past seasons, McDonough said.

Critics might say the Cubs can afford to have a promotion where 97 percent of the fans in attendance won't get an item, since games in 38,396-seat Wrigley Field were filled to 96 percent capacity last year.

"For the teams that have thousands and thousands of tickets to sell, the mass promotion still might be the way to go," said David Carter of The Sports Business Group, a sports marketing consultancy practice. "On the other hand, there's plenty of people who are sick and tired of getting refrigerator magnets when they come through the turnstiles."

Carter said the Cubs' jersey promotion might force teams to take a closer look at the quality of items they are giving away and think about coming up with their own items that they can offer fans a 1-in-200 chance of winning.

"So many promotional items that were made in mass also get tossed in trash cans in mass," Carter said. "And if they don't make it home, the team isn't getting their money's worth."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com