Some money-losing Major League Baseball teams aren't waiting for Commissioner Bud Selig and his Blue Ribbon Panel to solve their problems. They're turning to bobble-head dolls instead.
The hand-painted figurines with big bouncing heads made to resemble such favorites as Willie Mays and Kirby Puckett are doing more to sell tickets this year than just about anything else.
"If we could give these out every night, baseball wouldn't have any more problems with small-market teams," said Patrick Klinger, promotions director for the Minnesota Twins, whose $16.5 million player payroll is the smallest in baseball.
You can't blame Klinger for wishing. The Twins are in last place, they don't have a marketable player, and are drawing a second-worst-in-the-majors 13,967 fans a game.
But when Klinger brings out the bobble-heads, fans start lining up at 6:30 a.m., and the Twins just about double their average attendance.
"I just can't say enough about these bobble-heads," Klinger said.
He's not the only fan. In June, 41-year-old tax accountant Brian Herberg sold the Harmon Killebrew bobble-head doll he got for free at a Twins game for $145 on Internet auction site eBay.
"It's a really nice doll, but it's not that nice," Herberg said.
Bobble-head dolls are baseball's most recent promotional fad, following the Beanie Babies craze of a few years ago.
The dolls, made by closely held Alexander Global Promotions Inc. of Bellevue, Washington, are comparatively expensive. They can cost teams or sponsors as much as $5 each, compared to $1 for such traditional promotional items as hats, bats and balls.
That's not stopping 11 of the 30 major-league teams from having bobble-head doll promotions this year or next. Many are low-revenue teams such as the Twins, Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates who can't rely upon on-field success to sell tickets because they can't afford to field competitive teams.
Bobble-head dolls, first made in China in the 1600s, and baseball have been familiar friends for almost 30 years. A Japanese company made papier-mache likenesses of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in the early 1960s, and just last year a Mark McGwire model was sold as licensed merchandise.
Clubs, though, didn't start using them as a giveaway item until May of 1999, when the San Francisco Giants handed out 35,000 Willie Mays bobble-head dolls to get fans to go to chilly Candlestick Park. It was borne of an idea from former Giants batboy Mario Alioto, who now is senior vice president of corporate marketing for the team.
He remembered how much he cherished a Mays bobble-head doll as a boy, and convinced the team that fans would come out to get ones of their own.
He was right. The team drew 35,054 that day, almost twice the average attendance at the club's former home.
"It was a challenge getting fans to come out to Candlestick," Alioto said. "We had to be as creative as possible."
The Giants — who now have a waiting list for season tickets in their new home, Pacific Bell Park — gave away 20,000 Barry Bonds dolls June 11, drawing a sellout crowd of 40,930.
"It's more of a reward to fans. It's not used as a lure to get fans into the ballpark," he said.
Low-revenue teams such as the Marlins, however, need to attract fans. The franchise gave out 7,500 generic "Mr. Marlin" dolls on a recent Sunday — the seven-year-old team had no players past or present to be immortalized with a bobble-head — and increased attendance 13 percent to around 17,000.
"It went so well that I think we'll select a player next year," said Ron Colangelo, a Marlins spokesman.
Not every bobble-head promotion has been an unbridled success. The Pirates drew 30,000 fans on a recent Saturday night when they were giving away dolls depicting former player Bill Mazeroski. While it helped them top their average attendance of 21,000, they were expecting at least 35,000 fans.
They're now stuck with 5,000 Mazeroski dolls.
"It was overcast, we had some clouds," said Vic Gregovitz, the Pirates' vice president of marketing and broadcasting. "We'll just hold onto them, and maybe give them to charity."
The Twins, however, have had nothing but success. The team drew 22,000 fans when they gave away Killebrew dolls and 21,000 when they gave away likenesses of Tony Oliva, a Twins star from the 1960s and '70s.
Luring fans with giveaway items is especially important in baseball because major-league teams have more unsold tickets than other major U.S. sports properties — more than 60 million seats valued at $1 billion a year.
Baseball's economy has left poorer teams no choice but to rely on promotions to draw fans because they don't have the money to field competitive teams.