MLB Opening Day Arrives With New Virtual and On-Field Advertisements

    • MLB and ESPN disclose virtual advertising plans for when games begin July 23.
    • MLB games on ESPN will also feature low levels of artificial fan noise provided by individual clubs.

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MLB has explored several make good options for league and team sponsors in recent months, expecting that baseball games in 2020 are likely to be played without fans in attendance.

One of the rumored make good options for marketers has been virtual ads in stadiums and on the field play, with signage around the first and third baselines and behind the pitcher’s mound considered prime real estate

MLB this week said that all prime real estate would be available for advertisers in addition to the on-deck circle and batter’s eye. Individual teams will decide on whether logos are physically or virtually displayed to fans on TV broadcasts.

When MLS returned to play on July 8, the league sent social media into a frenzy over the number of virtual ads displayed. The opening match of its MLS is Back tournament between Orlando City and Inter Miami aired on ESPN featured several logos around the field, including a digitized Adidas logo right on the center kickoff circle. Adidas is MLS’s biggest sponsor, having signed a seven-year, $700 million extension with the league in 2017 to remain its official apparel partner.

Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president of production and remote events, said digital advertising efforts for MLB on ESPN this season will be fairly similar to past productions of Sunday Night Baseball even with additional ads. 

“As we sit here today, there are plans to have some virtual advertising – though not necessarily in the seats,” Gross said on a conference call with reporters last Thursday. MLB has also looked into seat tarps for extra advertising opportunities for sponsors, Front Office Sports reported in May.

Unlike the MLS is Back tournament matches on ESPN, MLB games on the network will feature artificial crowd noise supplied by individual clubs, Gross said. No virtual integration of fans has been discussed with ESPN at this point, but cardboard cutouts of fans will likely be displayed. 

READ MORE: Teams Embrace New Type of Fan Amid Pandemic: Cardboard Cutouts

“Right now, it looks like all of the stadiums will have crowd noise, will have their organists, and potentially their PA announcer,” Gross said. “We are not looking to fool anybody. We realize there are no fans there, but having a little crowd nat sound below the announcers just seems to make it work, and it doesn’t sound quite so hollow when we are doing the games.”

ESPN learned this lesson from the network’s telecasts of the KBO League – South Korea’s professional baseball league – which began in May. For those productions, ESPN staff worked from home. But for MLB broadcasts, both play-by-play announcers will work on ESPN’s campus in Bristol with reporters either in-stadium or at home. 

All stadium feeds will also be brought into a control room in Bristol, with fans occasionally seeing commentators such as Alex Rodriguez and Matt Vasgersian as they usually would during nationally broadcasted games, Gross added. 

Rodriguez, who is currently bidding to buy the New York Mets, will likely not call Mets games this season. The Mets and Atlanta Braves play on Sunday Night Baseball on July 26. 

For non-exclusive games aired on ESPN, such as a triple-header on July 24, the home MLB team’s regional sports network will provide a feed to the network, which will augment with K-Zone, graphics, and other features. 

READ MORE: MLS is Back Tournament Promises New and Costly Look at Pro Soccer

“I know a lot of regional guys who have been calling the intrasquad scrimmages for their rights-holders, and each of them has said the same thing; that it’s just so strange to call a game with nobody there,” Vasgersian said. “We are in a studio, so we are removed from the strangeness of the atmosphere.”

Without much crowd noise, fans will experience some of the on-the-field chatter and strategy on ESPN’s broadcasts, Rodriguez said. Not to mention, the natural sounds that the game of baseball offers. 

“We are going to have an opening day with [Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole] rushing it up there about 100 miles an hour,” Rodriguez said. “You only hear that sound in Arizona or in Florida in February and March. You know, plus the crack of the wood.”