Published in ESPN
By Joon Lee
Trevor Williams thought there was no way the Pittsburgh Pirates would cancel his bobblehead day. Amid the chaos following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the announcement of a delay to the 2020 Major League Baseball season, the starting pitcher at first figured they'd need to wait only an extra week or so before handing them out.
"My bobblehead day wasn't until the end of August," Williams said. "I was like, oh, it'll still be fine. No problems. There's no way that they shut down the 'Star Wars' bobblehead giveaway."
Fast forward nearly 11 months, when several large cardboard boxes from the Pirates, filled with 200 bobbleheads featuring his likeness in a stormtrooper outfit, arrived at his home in Phoenix. The Pirates had planned on giving away 10,000. Most of them, packed into 917 boxes, sit in a storage room at PNC Park. They're now part of a leaguewide treasure trove of unused promotional items that pose problems for teams, but could mean unprecedented freebies for fans when they return to games.
Because Williams signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs this offseason and is no longer a Pirate, rescheduling his bobblehead day in 2021 is, well, complicated.
The Pirates' promotional puzzle goes beyond Williams. The team had also announced a bobblehead giveaway, for last July, of first baseman Josh Bell, who was traded this offseason to the Washington Nationals. When asked what they had in mind for their leftover souvenirs, the Pirates didn't provide a plan -- but their predicament is far from unique.
When the sports world came to a pause last spring, Jay Deutsch, the CEO of Bensussen Deutsch & Associates (better known as BDA), said his company, which produces the majority of promotional bobbleheads for MLB teams, needed to pivot from distribution to storage. He estimates that about four million bobbleheads planned for giveaways last year are currently sitting in warehouses.
Teams plan promotions months in advance because of the production schedule required. Deutsch said BDA produced items scheduled through May 2020 (plus some for further out, including Williams' stormtrooper bobblehead) before the pandemic.
"It all got put on hold. It was a lot of what ifs. We had to work together to put together a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D. It was scenario planning for what would happen," Deutsch said. "Ultimately, there were no fans. Then it became Plan F, which was how to store everything and save it for next year. A couple of teams did creative things. Teams still wanted to engage fans, but when you don't have a stadium, it becomes kind of tough. But for the most part, the giveaway days are in a warehouse, waiting for 2021."
Deutsch said he is working with MLB to figure out contingency plans on distributing promotional items scheduled for 2020 that will likely be reused in 2021 and are not outdated.
"Most teams are going to try to utilize the bobbles in different ways, whether it becomes a season-ticket holder collectible, while some of these are donated to charity," Deutsch said. "The majority of the plan is that they'll give it to kids who are not worried about what happened last year. If we do have to recycle them, that's what we'll end up doing."
The Texas Rangers face a similar problem. The majority of the players who had bobbleheads scheduled for 2020 -- including Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, Corey Kluber, Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus -- are no longer on the roster. Chuck Morgan, the Rangers executive vice president of presentation, production and promotions, said the backlog created storage issues -- the Rangers were left with more than 10,000 boxes -- and forced the team to get creative. The current plan is to hold a promotional giveaway every Saturday and Sunday through August, with the inventory of some items spread out across multiple games.
"I had to juggle it again today to move the Elvis [Andrus] bobblehead, but we'll still give those away because he's been so great for the franchise," Morgan said after Texas dealt the popular shortstop to Oakland. "The Minor, Lynn and the Kluber -- those will be handed out on tours and we'll sell some at our Foundation table. I'm holding onto Choo, because if he retires, the club will have a day for him, or if he comes back on another team, we'll give them away then."
Given an excess of promotional items across the majors, Deutsch expects teams to plan more giveaway days than usual in 2021, presuming the seats aren't empty again.
"If fans can be in the stands on Opening Day, I think it's going to be the year of the fan," Deutsch said. "There's going to be so many more giveaways and a lot of teams are planning on utilizing last year's stuff in the first half of the season, as fast as possible. In the second half, they can do things that are focused on 2021."
With the boxes of bobbleheads now sitting in his garage, Williams took matters into his own hands recently by announcing on Twitter a giveaway of 75 of them for his fans and supporters.
"It was a little disappointing because if you're really lucky, you get multiple bobblehead days, and if you're lucky, you get one bobblehead day," Williams said. "I was thrilled about it. My wife doesn't like that we have five boxes in our garage now that are just taking up space. My son has already broken four bobbleheads."
Williams said he has no input on how the Pirates will handle the remaining 9,800 bobbleheads, but expresses little doubt that all will eventually find a home.
"I don't know how they'll give out nearly 10,000," he said. "But they'll find ways."