200 high-tech signs to line Ravens' nest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two awesomely large, brightly lit M&T; Bank signs are being erected on the north and south ends of the Ravens' stadium this week, a huge warning of the marketing blitz that awaits fans inside.

The interior of the stadium is dotted with about 200 high-tech signs that can work in unison or change in an instant to advertise dozens of companies or a single firm again and again.

Just where the signs are located, what they advertise, how they are packaged and when they are activated are all part of a carefully calculated marketing matrix designed to maximize the impact of the millions spent by advertisers.

Beyond making money, the stadium signs have some interesting quirks.

Fans watching at home will hardly see them because the NFL has its own selling to do for television advertisers.

And as frenetic as the flashing ads may seem, Ravens marketers say there is room in the stadium for many more.

"We have the opportunity to add more signs. It depends on the design. We could add up to 50 percent more signage if we thought we had demand to support that," said Dennis Mannion, vice president of business development and marketing for the Ravens.

"We have a very, very clean stadium," he added.

Clean might not be the first word that springs to the mind of fans.

There are two 100-foot-high LED, or light-emitting diode, panels perched high behind each end zone. The signs, which were installed last year, are the latest thing in stadium marketing because of their flexibility and scale.

"It is an interesting product because it can show both matrix animation and video-based animation," Mannion said.

Only eight companies have purchased the right to display their logo on the screens -M&T; Bank, Verizon, Comcast, The Baltimore Sun Co., Mile One, Pepsi, University of Maryland Medical Systems and Toyota.

Of course, this privilege comes at a hefty price. The average sign package costs $200,000 and the average contract lasts 3 years, although there is no restriction on the length of time a sign can stay up.

Some companies agree to just a one-year contract, although this is rare.

"We don't sell them [the signs] a la carte, per say," says Mannion. Some signs are physically combined as well.

TriVision signs, for example, appear on either side of the LED signs. Those eight signs, which are three-sided and rotate to show different advertisements, are sold out for the season, along with their classier LED counterparts.

Above the SmartVision scoreboards, which display the magic of LED technology, M&T; Bank, which bought naming rights to the stadium in May, flaunts its logo on flashy back-lighted signs.

The bank's $75 million, 15 year contract includes four signs outside the stadium, two 28-by-130- foot signs facing north and south, and two 20-by-20-foot signs facing east and west.

Paul Gable, the president of Gable Signs and Graphics, which manufactured the M&T; Bank signs, said that the smaller signs are "more in touch with the street traffic."

Gable's company, which has also manufactured signs for the Cal Ripken stadium and the Comcast Arena, dealt with the fabrication details and lighting. HOK, a design firm, conceived of the concept, and arranged to install the signs onto the stadium structure.

M&T; bank is the only bank to advertise on the stadium's exterior, and after next year, when a Mercantile Bankshares Corp. contract runs out, M & T will be the only bank to advertise inside the stadium as well.

Another sign type, this one rotational, appears as a small band that surrounds the stadium between the lower and upper seating.

As the term suggests, the screens rotate in unison approximately every 60 seconds, flashing a company's logo across all of the screens simultaneously.

Rotational signage, which is usually packaged with LED signage, occupies 360 feet. LED signage takes up 400 feet. Both types also display statistics and out of town scores.

"It's not [just] about signage anymore," said Jerry Cifarelli, president of ANC/SACO, the company that manufactures the LED and rotational signs.

"It's more than that. It's having the flexibility to have an exposure up at a particular time and to change things pretty quickly. Teams are selling moments of exclusivity."

In addition to the flashy signs, 125 stadium maps, which are flat, full-color diagrams of the stadium property and seating bowl, sneak in more subtle advertising. All of them include the M&T; Bank logo.

But you won't see as much of this seemingly ubiquitous advertising if you are on the field. Of the approximately 200 signs placed around the stadium, only about 30 are visible to the field.

The NFL mandates that signs can't be visible on national television, which includes restrictions on where signs are placed on the field itself as well as behind goalposts.

While TV stations sometimes insert fake signs onto their broadcast images of sporting events, Mannion said that "we have contracts that disallow broadcasters to block our imaging and to insert imaging."

He also added that "the bigger buyers of signage like Budweiser will always protect themselves contractually from blocking and insertion."

A total of about 20 companies have signs in the stadium.

"Most of the signs are consumer-oriented," Mannion said. "We try to build each brand to affect people's lifestyles directly. By associating the sponsor with the lifestyle type initiative, you ultimately sell more of the sponsor's products."

For example, M&T; Bank sponsors Football 101, a program that teaches women the basics of football.

The bank also dominates the automated teller machines in the stadium and has its name scrawled on the uniforms of the team's band, which has been renamed the M&T; Bank Marching Ravens.

Pepsi, which has a 10-year property contract, has its logo plastered on every cup holder, in addition to having its name displayed on all three types of signs.

"We target companies with consumer retail objectives," Mannion said.

He believes that the smallest sign in the stadium - approximately 3 feet by 4 feet - is probably the one posted by the Iron Birds, the Aberdeen baseball team.

Mannion would not reveal how much revenue the signs generate each year but he did say that, "yes, I think we saw a jump" after the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001.

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