Today's sports world has fallen head-over-heals in love with advanced metrics and analytics as the holy grail capable of measuring everything from advertising campaigns to zero-based budgeting.
But one area that defies the pivot table, algorithm or analytical decision is the sports fan's fascination with bobbleheads. How do you measure the emotional attachment to a 6- to 8-inch piece of polyresin? A quick look around my office has Michael Jordan bobbling next to an original Oakland A’s ceramic. Gordie Howe, Elvis, Pau Gasol and Shane Battier also made the lineup with many others. Take a look around your office or den and start bobbing through the acquisition story of your collection. Just like Legos, it sometimes seems that they propagate when your back is turned.
Bobbleologists have traced the first nodding heads back to ancient Japan and China. Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” made reference to bobbing heads in 1842. The ceramic figures had big heads connected to little bodies by springs were named nodders and bobbers.
In 1920, the New York Knickerbockers basketball team was said to have produced the first generic player bobblehead. Just imagine what that souvenir would bring at auction today. In the 1960s, Major League Baseball rolled out bobbles made of papier mache.
For decades promotional departments of sports teams have been working to squeeze extra attendance from teams, whether they're playing like champs or chumps.
Pedestrian promotions and in-game entertainment have their places in hyping fans interest in coming to the park. Some of the common offerings include merchandise giveaways (caps, t-shirts, socks, scarves, etc.), Mighty Mites (playing during breaks -- the tinier the better), ring ceremonies (for the champs and replicas for the fans), video boards (the time for every fan to have their 15 seconds of enlarged fame -- smooch cam, dance cam, sleep cam, scream cam, etc.), kids play areas, mascots, dance teams, free food, player autographs, fan appreciation days, contests and sweepstakes, ethnic/national pride days, fireworks, postgame concerts. The list goes on...
When all is said and done, though, the number of bobblehead promotions proves that the little man rules in driving increased attendance.
The bobblehead craze can be traced back to 1999 when the Giants handed out 35,000 Willie Mays bobbleheads to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Candlestick Park. The Bay Area has always been an innovation leader. In fact, the A’s actually pre-bobbled the Giants -- but in a different way.
Like millions of Baby Boomers I was fixated by the animals that bobbed their heads in the backs of many other cars of our childhood. When I was lucky enough to become VP of Business Operations of the A’s in 1981 we were looking for a creative way to sell tickets for our upcoming opponents. And we landed on the generic looking “A’s Mr. Bobble.”
We created a different scene for each opponent. Our peaceful looking A’s bobble was filmed watching the Detroit Tigers bobble falling off the Coliseum scoreboard and smashing to smithereens, the NY Yankees bobble blown up by firecracker, the Angels bobble stepped on by an elephant, or the Red Sox bobble obliterated by a baseball bat. Our A’s bobble would just be smiling, bobbing and nodding in his role as an innocent bystander. A’s fans loved it.
The American Journal of Business showed that bobblehead giveaways boosted league-wide baseball attendance by almost 7,000 fans per game. Simple math shows that the upside of a $3 or $4 investment in a little figurine would drive much larger profits in ticket sales. And almost all bobble giveaways are sponsored, so profits can come in the hundreds of thousands. That would make any team promotion manager’s head bob north and south with a big smile.
Teams hand out over three million little head-shakers every year and the magic doesn’t seem to be coming to an end. Fans are even happier since the aftermarket is a great way to make some quick cash.
The Warriors recently handed out the smaller version of energizer bunny Draymond Green. (I’m wondering why this wasn't the talking version since the technology is in place.)
Bobbleheads are the Switzerland of sports promotions. They are ageless, diverse, collectible, monetizable, easy to display, hot-ticket sellers and story starters. And they're always smiling and agreeing with what we have to say.