Yoga mats in the outfield

The full blaze of the midday sun shone down on Dodger Stadium, and heat waves danced on the infield dirt.

But the Dodgers weren't poised to take the field.

In fact, the only Dodger present was Andre Ethier, and he was sprawled on a yoga mat in pigeon pose. All around him, about 100 fans were similarly contorted -- having paid $100 a pop for the privilege.

In the brave new world of sports marketing, it's not always enough to sell game tickets or offer high-priced trips to spring training. With ticket sales down and corporate sponsorships shrinking, teams throughout professional sports are trading on the celebrity cachet of players, selling well-heeled fans the opportunity to lunch, fish, cruise or even practice yoga with their idols.

Some of the activities, like a recent Cincinnati Reds meet-and-greet, are for charity. But teams are increasingly turning to special events to make money.

Fans can put in a day's work as a groundskeeper with the Detroit Tigers ($1,250) or kick back on a cruise to the Bahamas with the Philadelphia Phillies (up to $1,599).

Football promotions include cruises with the Philadelphia Eagles (up to $6,000) and the San Diego Chargers. The Kings hockey team offered a four-day cruise to Mexico, and the Chicago Cubs are selling spaces on a trip to the Dominican Republic with players.

Last week, for $99, the Angels offered kids a one-day baseball day camp that featured pitching lessons and autographs. Like most Angels promotional events, proceeds went to charity.

"People love having that special access," said Dennis Mannion, the Dodgers' president and chief executive officer.

In addition to the yoga session with Ethier, the team recently offered a fishing trip with pitchers Brent Leach and James McDonald. That brought in about $11,000.

Mannion said events like these could eventually bring in more money than tickets, concessions or parking. The three nights the team offered batting practice -- in which fans could work on their swing under the stadium lights -- brought in about $170,000.

Players typically get paid for their appearances unless the event is for philanthropic purposes, a Dodgers spokeswoman said.

Next year, Mannion plans to seek corporate sponsorships for the events, he said, which he hopes will drive revenues even further.

"It's all about identifying and connecting with your fan demographic," he said. The team is also continuing its regular promotions, such as fireworks on Friday nights. It will hold a second bobblehead night in celebration of colorful left fielder Manny Ramirez, despite recent revelations that he tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in 2003.

David Carter, professor of sports business at the USC Marshall School of Business, said the activities are successful because they allow people to do more than simply watch a game.

"People don't want to spend their money on a baseball game right now," Carter said. "They want to spend their money on a baseball experience."

It's a growing trend throughout professional sports, as teams look for ways to bring fans -- and their pocketbooks -- to the park, said Jon Greenberg, executive editor of Team Marketing Report, a sports marketing research firm.

"It's a good way to engage your fans," Greenberg said. "Fans feel a closer connection with the team when they interact with players."

Take yoga with Ethier. People from throughout the Los Angeles area came to blend their fascination with the Dodgers with a personal activity they enjoy.

"It was such a unique offer," said Melanie DuPre, 35, sweating as she came off the baking field. "I wanted to check it out."

DuPre made the 25-mile trip from Lomita for the event. She's a Dodgers fan, but it was the idea of practicing yoga at Dodger Stadium that lured her, despite the 95-degree heat.

Nearly all of the participants were women, and several said they were there as much to work out near the young, attractive Ethier as they were to practice their downward-facing dog pose.

"Being able to do yoga with Andre was really cool," said Julia Angello, 21, of Granada Hills, who was wearing an Ethier T-shirt.

Jamie McCourt, who is married to Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and runs the team's business operations, said the team hit on the idea of a yoga promotion as a way to reach out to women, who historically have spent less on professional sports than men.

"Nobody pays attention to women in the baseball world," said McCourt, who has been trying out different ways to market the team to women. "I thought it was time we start bringing all our fans closer to the team."

The yoga event brought in about $10,000. The team said Ethier was not paid because a portion of the take went to charity, although a spokeswoman would not say how much.

Jerry Lewis, director of the Detroit Tigers' fantasy camp and other promotions, said about half the calls he gets are from women, who are buying promotional events for their husbands, boyfriends or sons.

Along with camp, which costs $3,450 for a week, fans can deliver the ball to the mound for $1,500 or work on the grounds crew.

S. Mark Young, an expert on the economics, sociology and psychology of celebrity at the USC Marshall School of Business, said fans want to attend these events for the same reason they want to be photographed with celebrities or get their autographs.

"They want to feel a part of the excitement and feel special," Young said. "Some feel like they should be in the limelight."

But some people just love the game and its players, Young said.

When the Cincinnati Reds' corporate sponsors began drying up, the team needed to find new means of replenishing its charity fund. The Reds are promoting a post-game event for Aug. 16 at which fans can meet every player and coach, and collect each autograph on a baseball, bat or jersey.

The team expects to bring in more than $100,000.

But though such promotional events can be lucrative, Carter of USC warns teams that they could overdo it.

"If people start thinking that these events are just another way for ownership to pad their wallets, then things will fall flat," Carter said.

Tyler Barnes, vice president of communications for the Milwaukee Brewers, said fans expect teams to be generating new ideas these days.

"You have to be creative to keep the team on everybody's radar," Barnes said. "You want to keep things fresh."

The Brewers began offering drive-in movies at Miller Park this season. The first showing brought in more than $8,000 in tickets alone. Barnes would not confirm exactly what they made, but if you throw in concessions and advertising, it becomes apparent why the Brewers are offering another movie night in August.

At Dodger Stadium last week, the baseball yogis toweled off and sipped water as the session ended.

A team vice president asked whether participants would be willing to pony up $100 to come back and practice yoga again at the stadium -- next time without Ethier.

More than half the hands shot up.

"Are you kidding?" said Mala Williams, 31, a music teacher from Whittier. "I'd love to come out here again."

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william.hennigan@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction Sports marketing: An article in Monday's Section A about pro sports promotions said Dennis Mannion was the Dodgers' president and chief executive. He is president and chief operating officer.
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