Signs and Spending: What Is The Padres’ Product?

The San Diego Padres replaced their retired numbers display on top of their batter’s eye with an advertisement. That in itself says a lot, but let’s be fair and think a little more.

The Tom Garfinkel regime added other large smatterings of advertisements to Petco Park in the form of a giant golf club and paint can, among others. More recently, Ron Fowler and Mike Dee have taken ads in Petco Park to another level. Seemingly everything not nailed down has a corporate sponsor attached, including an almost impressive ability to create new places to display ads, including a large freestanding National University sign in left-centerfield and a Sycuan banner hanging above another ad on the light tower in right field.

Fans were especially vocal about the National University sign, but the increased corporate presence was followed by real change to the team’s finances. I asked CEO Mike Dee about the ad revenue at the 2014 Padres Social Summit, and he said that money would go back into the team. Indeed it appeared to, because after the National University and other signs debuted in 2014, the Padres raised payroll significantly.

And while payroll dropped in 2016, we’re expecting a large shopping spree in international free agency this year, and it makes perfect sense to lump that spending to MLB payroll as every team faces choices about where to allocate their budget. I’m sure if Dee or the Padres responded to fan complaints, they would point out the increase in spending as the reason for the ads, and point to the benefits fans have seen.

padres tony gwynn memorial number

The story doesn’t end there. But it does get more complicated, because we’re discussing a specific ad with specific consequences.

And because no fan comes to the ballpark to see a high payroll. Fans come to see the Padres, which is a more difficult concept to define. But let’s try anyway.

The Padres are a baseball team that plays in San Diego. The San Diego Padres are the players, their history, fans’ memories, and fans’ experiences at the ballpark.

Which of these parts of the Padres whole does the new Sycuan ad serve? Well, certainly not their history, and changing or moving something meant to mark history is doubly bad. We can all agree that Petco Park is a much nicer place to watch baseball then Jack Murphy Stadium, but a lot of us still miss the Murph because it represented our history. And changing that history takes a piece of it away. The retired numbers on the batter’s eye were a memorial to the Padres history and our shared experiences. Memorials can mean different things to different people, but to me this one means “If you do great things for the Padres and their fans, you’ll get to be a part of this, and out of respect for your accomplishments we won’t fuck with it.”

Well fuck with it they did, the Padres sold their memorial to Sycuan Casino. But history isn’t the only thing that makes the Padres, players are an important part too and advertising helps facilitate that. While we don’t know what players the Sycuan ad will help the Padres acquire, we do know it will be at least a player. At least one player the Padres couldn’t afford before that they can afford now.

But not knowing something has never stopped the internet from having an opinion on it before, so why stop now. We’ll call it an attempt at perspective. We do know that when the Padres put the giant golf club on the right field foul pole from 2011-2013 it earned the Padres a cool $1 million, or $333k per season. Inflation has happened since then, and we’ll say the batter’s eye is a better ad location, so let’s be generous and more than double the previous amount. Let’s say the Padres are earning $1 million per year, or $5 million total from the new ad.

The going price of a win on the free agent market is about $7-8 million, which means assuming 100% of the revenue from the ad goes straight to payroll, the ad doesn’t quite get us one win on the free agent market. Or, looking at how the Padres have chosen to spend their money, the ad buys us about 30% of Matt Kemp’s age 34 season in 2019.

For me, the price just isn’t worth it. At least at the cost of history. I’d rather have the retired numbers displayed prominently, and permanently. I want to tell stories about Tony Gwynn’s number retirement, or about the time they turned the spotlight on in a blacked out stadium at Tony’s memorial. This year especially, when stories on the field are light history is most important.

But most of all, I want all Padres to know that if you do enough for our team and our city to be worth memorializing, some future owner won’t fuck with it.

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