So far Kevin Costner’s turn as a Detroit Tiger in ”For Love of the Game” isn’t exactly a solid hit at the box office, taking in just $13 million in its debut weekend, but it was a great play for the Tigers ball club. When any sports team gets screen time in a movie — from the Cleveland Indians in the ”Major League” series to hockey’s New York Rangers in the upcoming ”Mystery, Alaska” — it’s the home team that triumphs over Hollywood every time.
Consider this: In most product-placement deals — a reported $50 million a year industry — the movie studio is paid to give screen time to a specific brand of soda, beer, or other goody. But when it comes to portraying professional sports teams, it’s the filmmakers who must open their wallets: ”Mystery, Alaska” producer Howard Baldwin, for example, paid in the low six figures for Ranger rights, and baseball teams — like the Tigers for ”Game” — often command a low-seven-figure fee to let movies depict their club.
Studios pay because producers want reality, and often a very specific reality. ”Game” chose the Tigers because ”Detroit was a classic team,” says producer Amy Robinson. ”It has a long history where there could be a player [like Costner’s] who had stayed with the team for many years.” When the makers of ”Mystery, Alaska” were looking for a team to play an exhibition game against their Arctic underdogs, they went after the Rangers because ”New York is a huge city, and everybody loves to hate it,” says Baldwin.
All deals start with the producers going to the team’s league — be it Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, or the NFL — which acts as an agent, screening all offers. These overseers look for portrayals which go against the image of the league. The NFL, for example, wouldn’t approve Oliver Stone’s upcoming ”Any Given Sunday,” an angry dramatization of how players are corrupted by greed; Stone had to create a fictional team called the Miami Sharks. And the red flags go up for much smaller details: For ”Alaska,” the NHL objected to a scene in which the Mystery squad watches a video of a brawl-filled Ranger/Maple Leaf matchup. ”We toned it down a bit so there wasn’t such an emphasis on the fighting,” explains Baldwin.
Once the league approves, reps from the specific team study the script to make sure their club comes off looking like the pros they are. In ”Game,” both the Tigers and the Yankees insisted that real major and minor league ballplayers (such as Yank left fielder Ricky Ledee) be used on the field. These script studiers also check for inaccuracies in depicting big-league life. For example, Tiger script reviewer Tyler Barnes corrected a scene in ”Love of the Game” where the players walked to the airport carrying their own bags, something the pros never do. ”Is the average Joe gonna know that? No, they’re not,” says Barnes. ”But if you want this to be the most authentic baseball movie you can make, that’s gotta change.”
Why be so careful? Because teams like the Tigers get more out of these deals than just a licensing fee. ”It’s free advertising on an international scale,” says Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based sports investment banking firm Sportscorp. ”’Game’ will likely benefit Detroit in merchandise sales, ticket sales, and it’ll make them more of a draw on the road. Presuming the movie is successful.”
And even if ”Game” doesn’t prove to be a box office ”Field of Dreams,” the Tigers can still add to their most priceless currency: fans. ”If a mom takes her two kids to this movie and they love Kevin Costner, and, by the way, Costner’s wearing a Tigers uniform, do we now have three new fans?” says the Tigers’ Barnes. ”However we can hook ’em, we’ll take ’em.”