Minor League Baseball: Bastion of Promotional Creativity

The greatest promotional spectacle in America can be found at your nearest minor league ballpark.

It’s a Friday in early June, the kind of comfortable breezy night perfectly engineered to spend at the ballpark. The Altoona Curve are hosting their division counterparts from Richmond, and all the lyrical sights and sounds of America’s Pastime are on display: the staccato rhythm of the game, the burbling murmur of the crowd, the yelps of children as they run on the grassy hill beyond the outfield wall.

But this game on this night in this Western Pennsylvania city is no mere romantic vision of baseball. On-field contests are lorded over by a man in an elf costume. Player headshots on the centerfield big screen have been superimposed into movies like Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. And fans clutch the day’s giveaway: a bobblehead of a player in shirt and jeans, gleefully about to strike a cowbell.

For the Curve, this game is their Tribute to Will Ferrell Night. It’s also Game 26 out of 70 home dates this season, a barrage of promotions that includes (but certainly isn’t limited to) Parrothead Night, Superhero Night, Harry Potter Night, two Star Wars nights, three concerts, a dozen giveaways and more after-game fireworks performances than you can shake a lighter at. Tonight’s promotion is unique, exciting and attention-getting – just like all the others on the Curve’s home schedule.

Welcome to the world of minor league baseball, the biggest promotional circus in America. It’s earned that unofficial title out of necessity. While Major League Baseball and other top sports leagues draw tens of thousands of fans nightly just for the love of the game, diehards make up a smaller percentage (anywhere from 20%-35%) of the minor league baseball crowd. The rest are families and fun-seekers in search of affordable entertainment that stretches well beyond the play on the field. “The gentleman who hired me in [baseball] many years ago said ‘Basically, minor league baseball is dinner theater,’” says Brian Sloan, who worked in minor league baseball front offices for nearly 25 years before joining Alexander Global Promotions (asi/116710) in 2014.

And like theater, the show must go on. That’s because minor league teams are affiliated with major league parent clubs who provide the players and pay their salaries – and mandate that games are played even if no fans come to watch. Therefore, private owners of minor league franchises have to rely on ticket sales, merchandise and concessions to generate their revenue. The only way to do that is to get as many people to show up as possible.

With 160 minor league baseball teams that charge admission (not to mention 53 independent professional teams), the result is a season-long, nationwide promotional assault designed not only to draw fans throughout the spring and summer, but also to generate social media buzz and (just maybe) garner national exposure. The logic is simple: If something like a post-game concert draws thousands to the stadium, a few hundred will return for another game. “At the end of the day, I always want to convert your average person into a baseball fan,” says Sam Hansen, director of marketing for the Fresno Grizzlies. “But you lure them in with a teaspoon of sugar.”

This makes minor league marketers akin to Willy Wonka dispensing his confectionary creations. Minor league promos are, to sum it up in one word, wild. “I don’t think there’s anything too crazy for us,” says Lindsey Knupp, vice president of marketing/entertainment for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who wear Bacon uniforms for every Saturday home game. Minor league promos usually fall into the same construct: funny, irreverent, not offensive but “a little bit off the wall,” Knupp adds.

It wasn’t always this way, says Benjamin Hill, a writer with MiLB.com whose “Ben’s Biz Blog” covers the promotions and operations of minor league baseball teams. In the decades following World War II, leagues folded and attendance stagnated, forcing teams to get more creative. “As the new ballpark boom took off in the ’90s,” says Hill, “it went hand-in-hand with a lot of the promotions you see, because teams had a new venue and forum to try new things.”

Now teams closely watch what others are doing and readily share ideas because they don’t compete geographically for fans. In essence, successful promotional gimmicks go viral. But even among the waves of imitation, there exists a singular pursuit of bold new ideas to capture the attention of fans. Like the label of a wood bat, the culture of promotion is carved deep into the sport.

“You have a certain freedom in minor league baseball to do what I think are interesting promotions, groundbreaking in some instances. I try not to be mean spirited,” says Mike Veeck, part owner of several minor league teams with a legacy (along with his father, Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck) of being baseball’s ringleader of fun and most decorated promotional mind. “It’s really fun, and you attract a tremendous group of people who want to exercise their creative muscles.”

Increasingly, those creative minds have hatched theme events that go beyond Military or Little League night (which are still essential, mind you – group sales are the lifeblood of minor league revenue). The most popular ones tap into rabid cult fan bases, which explain the cavalcade of Star Wars, Harry Potter and Superhero Nights all across the sport.

Other nights latch onto pop culture touchstones and anniversaries – everything from Sgt. Pepper to Grease to Nickelodeon to hundreds more. In 2015, the Curve put on “A Night in the Neighborhood,” celebrating the legacy of children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and its current animated successor, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The team held a sweater drive, gave out books and prizes to children and wore special jerseys that mimicked Mr. Rogers’ signature red cardigan. Trey Wilson, director of communications & broadcasting for the Curve, attributes the success of that promotion and others for their local ties. (Fred Rogers was born in Latrobe, PA, and operated out of nearby Pittsburgh.) “We tried to pull in the entire region with the promotional ideas we did that year, and it’s carried over in years since then,” says Wilson. “That’s what made it unique.”

Theme nights create indelible experiences. “It’s like you’re going to a different theme park every day,” Hansen says. They’re also just the tip of the iceberg. Everything is fair game at a minor league ballpark: 5Ks, celebrity appearances, decade flashbacks, holiday celebrations, salutes to everything from political correctness and awfulness and much more. In the past few years, minor league teams have fallen in love with changing their name for one night and creating gonzo special uniforms. Thanks to the advent of sublimation, these jerseys are colorful and outlandish, and anything is fair game: mariachis, zombies, even Jabba the Hutt. The special one-off jerseys are almost always auctioned off for charity. If they’re deployed regularly, like the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and Fresno Grizzlies do with their respective Bacon and Taco food uniforms (see sidebar on page 80), it can result in major merch sales.

Within all this promotional innovation, there is certainly one constant: giveaways. Minor league baseball teams know that fans come to the ballpark because they are excited to take home something beyond fun and memories. “If we have a giveaway,” Knupp says, “they’re lined up and they’re here.”

And among giveaways, one lords above them all: the bobblehead. Reintroduced in 1999 when Alexander Global produced a Willie Mays version for the San Francisco Giants, bobbleheads have soared in popularity thanks to their collector’s appeal and swift advances in quality and ingenuity. “If you look at the bobbleheads that are being given away, the attention to detail is far greater than in the past,” says Sloan, who serves as the director of business development for Alexander Global and works with over 100 sports franchises. “Teams are being creative, and the more they ask ‘Can we do this?’ it pushes the envelope for us to deliver those details.”

While many bobbleheads feature players in team uniforms or an iconic pose, minor league teams ramp-up the fun with high-concept designs. This year Fresno gave away a bobblehead of San Francisco Giants star pitcher (and rugged outdoorsman) Madison Bumgarner arm westling a grizzly bear. In Altoona, the Curve recast their mascot Al Tuna as a Sith lord in “Revenge of the Fish.” The Potomac Nationals issued an “Ode to Tommy John Surgery” with a bobblehead that featured a removable elbow ligament. “Every bobblehead is telling a story,” says Sloan, whose company has also created bobbleheads for corporate clients and fundraisers.

But while fans still line up in droves for bobbleheads, other giveaways still have tremendous cache. “For us, the biggest nights are the usable items: fleece blankets, T-shirts, hats, replica jerseys, cooler bags, anything that can be used for their day-to-day life,” says Knupp, whose team is planning to dole out giveaways at half of its home games this year. These products can be very creative as well – take the shrimp neck pillows doled out this year by the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

“Standard” giveaways can also be deployed in very creative ways. The Spokane Indians wanted to highlight the diminishing number of redband trout in the region, so they turned to Brandiose, a sports design company that has created branding, logos and promotions for a bevy of minor league franchises. Together, they created the “Redband Rally Campaign.” Along with distinctive uniforms that mimicked the patterning on the fish, the team dreamed up a new trout mascot that was first revealed on a July 8 home date. The team also gave out “Redband Headbands” during the middle of the sixth inning, featuring the same red and blue spots and stripes that are on the uniform and the fish. Inside the headband was a conservation message about the fish and the campaign. When the mascot appeared in the bottom of the seventh inning, the team played Heart’s “Barracuda” and instructed fans to put on their headbands and go wild.

For Jason Klein, co-founder of Brandiose, it was essential to incorporate the headband into a “ritual” where it would be used. “It’s not just about the giveaway anymore,” says Klein. “It’s about the story, and it’s more of a campaign.”

Minor league baseball promotions are a lot of fun, but creating them is serious business. Even during the season, many teams are already putting together a calendar of promotions for the following year. And it’s a true democracy; ideas come from just about everybody. “What I like to do is bring everyone together that will contribute: community relations, marketing, our general manager and assistant general manager and our head of group sales,” says Isaiah Arpino, director of promotions and entertainment for the Curve. “Everyone brings their big ideas – what they think worked last year and anything new.”

Teams like the IronPigs are soliciting bids for next season’s giveaways by September. If the item’s a bobblehead, Alexander Global has the teams order 90-120 days out. “That’s every sports executive’s nightmare: not having the giveaway you promised your fans,” says Sloan, whose company claims to have never missed an event day deadline and will refuse orders if the timing is too tight.

Minor league franchises don’t have the capacity (physical or mental) to house all of their promotions, which is why they rely on their vendors to deliver giveaways in a timely manner. And with so much product coming in throughout a season, reliability is essential. “Delivering on what you promise and communication – that’s what makes us stay with a company,” says Mike Kessling, director of marketing & special events for the Curve.

Teams often find vendors through two offseason meetings: the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar (which takes place in late September) and the Baseball Trade Show (December). Those aren’t the only ways to get in with baseball franchises, but team executives use it as an essential way to gather new ideas and meet service providers. Distributors must stand out. “We’re providing the value and the resources and managing it for you,” says Jill Albers, vice president of business development for Shumsky (asi/326300), which works with eight minor league ball clubs. “We’ve built that kind of relationship where they don’t worry about things because we have it taken care of.”

Giveaways are just part of the equation for distributors. Minor league teams also need apparel for staffers, gifts for kids’ club members and ticket package holders and even merchandise for the team store. (Companies must be licensed with minor league baseball if they are producing retail items.)

With any item, teams may know what they want, but distributors can guide them to the right product. If it’s a giveaway, it must check certain boxes, says Albers. They can’t be age- or gender-specific, they must be easy to hand out and carry, and (unless you’re handing out noisemakers), they shouldn’t create noise or distractions. Adds Kessling: “The one thing we try not to do [with our giveaways] is compete too much with our merchandise store.” Budget certainly matters, and price can be a factor, though minor league teams should successfully get sponsors to underwrite the costs.

The goal of all of this is to drive ticket sales, and there is proof in the results. Affiliated minor league baseball teams collectively set an attendance record in 2008 of 43.2 million, and for 12 consecutive years of over 41 million in attendance. Veeck says advertisers have taken notice of the growth and success of the sport. “[Large] advertisers now really pay attention to minor league baseball, and they didn’t used to,” says Veeck, whose litany of creative promotions include 2003’s Silent Night, where fans at a Charleston RiverDogs game were forbidden from talking or cheering until the fifth inning.

The attendance, the ad dollars, the social media and web attention – it offers a different narrative of minor league baseball marketing, one with less small-time goofiness and more event savvy. For the biggest seal of approval, look to Major League Baseball, where storied franchises now have no qualms about hosting their own Star Wars nights. “As soon as it can be monetized,” says Veeck, “it’s not bush.”

Meanwhile, down in the minors, teams will keep coming up with “the major league promotions of tomorrow,” says Klein. Along with his partner Casey White, the duo behind Brandiose have executed some of the most exciting and polarizing team name changes in the minor league ranks – Chihuahuas, Flying Squirrels and more. As Klein sees it, the touchpoints of the minor league fan experience can be raised to new heights, envisioning ideas like custom-shaped souvenirs and fan merch packages that latch onto the subscription box craze. The sport keeps pushing and pushing in all its unhinged genius. “The race for creativity and imagination, the race for doing what’s new and cutting-edge,” he says, “is feverish.”

C.J. Mittica is editor-in-chief for Advantages. Tweet: @CJ_Advantages. Contact: cmittica@asicentral.com