As we head toward pitchers and catchers reporting in less than a month, we are seeing the seeds of baseball pop up in the most remote locations, where spring seems lightyears away. In Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee…talk of baseball, and ticket selling and autographs are all on the minds of the die hard and the casual fan these next few weeks. Why? Yes it’s because baseball remains the casual summer sport that many people in North America still mark time by. However more importantly is because teams, especially those in cold weather climates, have launched their annual winter caravans and fan experiential events, days and sometimes weeks of activity that brings players, coaches and the brand back top of mind at a critical time of year.
The Fan Fest is not just a baseball-specific idea. Other sports in some markets take advantage of the offseason in similar ways, but the overall “festival” plan in the dead of winter is one of the practices that baseball does best. It is a real re-invigoration of the brand…and an opportunity to give fans affordable access to the players, the coaches and everything about the brand…regardless of where the team ended up the previous season. It also gives the team the ability to answer questions, hype to players, and really connect with those who will buy the tickets and the merch when the season starts. Some teams like Yankees, a team with some very young stars in a big market that have seen their ticket base erode, created the #winterwarmup platform – leading off their week of player appearances throughout the New York area, from deli’s to schools to community service events with many of their newer faces like rising star Gary Sanchez paired with veterans like CC Sabathia, to remind and enhance the brand in places big and small. The week-long series of events led nicely to the Baseball Writers Dinner on Saturday, and with both the Jets and Giants gone from the NFL playoffs, gave the Yankees a platform that was always there but rarely used by the Bombers when times were probably much better.
The Detroit Tigers, who have done one of the best jobs of any team with their annual Tiger Fest, use the weekend as a chance to pull in and explain the brand to potential sponsors of all sizes, and have even created blogger-specific events to gauge opinion and feedback. In many markets the Fan Fest has become a great offseason revenue source, while in others it is a work in progress. The Fan Fest idea is not universally in place in baseball…the Mets for example do not do fan fests because of the crowded marketplace, the anticipated lack of a sizable venue and the fact that the sport gets mega-coverage almost every day in the media …but it is a growing one. Minor league teams in some markets do scaled down versions as well.
Why does the “Fan Fest” work with baseball better than other sports? Simple. The offseason for most others is when people have other distractions, needs, interests etc…the weather is warm and the kids are out of school. It makes it much harder to aggregate people for an indoor event when they would rather be outdoors. Baseball’s natural switch of seasons really plays to the fact that people want to think about the outdoors, and the Fan Fest is a natural extension of that. Baseball also benefits from both the volume of players, coaches and alumni that can attend such events and give the fans such wide -ranging access. The history of the game, and the size of the roster, keeps fans and vendors very busy. There is also an interesting benefit because of the downturn of the economy. Memorabilia trade shows and autograph sessions, which used to be the weekly norm in many markets, have dried up, leaving the teams to fill in a void at a better economy of scale. The fact that the event is also not just autographs and memorabilia and has the “official” team stamp is also a great help in setting the team event apart from one off vendor driven weekend signing events.
Could other sports do such extravanganzas in so many markets effectively, and do they have to? Tough to say. The NBA and other sports do very well with their experiential events around All-Star and the Super Bowl in those markets, but very few teams undertake the time and expense to pull off such mass events in the offseason outside of baseball.
Whether they do or not in the future remains to be seen, but the idea of a caravan is something that other sports teams…even colleges…should be doing more. Coming in for community and media-specific events in the offseason to build good will and promote the brand with all stakeholders. Baseball and its offseason fan extensions, still remains as the stick by which other offseason large scale in market promotions are measured.