Majoring In The Minors: Three Promo That Score

March Madness is in full bloom this early spring. However there is still baseball in the air, at least in Arizona and Florida and this weekend in Australia, where the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opened the 2014 season.  So we wanted to highlight some cut through the clutter moves that two minor league, and one college summer league team, have taken on in recent weeks. They touch on all the great things that the minors can do and even set up as best practices for those in the majors; connect with a local community, be a little edgy and use, effectively, low cost and simple promos to engage fans.

A TAT For The Team: In recent years several teams including the New York Islanders, have gone the route of tattoo pop up stands in venues. Whether they work or not on a permanent basis is up for debate, but the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs this week found a way to engage a tattoo sponsor and make some hay with an offer for a loyal fan who maybe would have had a few too many and took a risk.

The Chiefs, an affiliate of the Washington Nationals, are offering free tickets for life to anyone who gets the team’s logo tattooed on their body. This specifically is being offered on July 1, the team’s Tattoo Night.  Local sponsor Carmelo’s Ink City will do a Chiefs’ tattoo and you’ll get a general admission ticket for life. The logo tattoos would be free, a locomotive coming out of a C, and it doesn’t make it clear whether the tattoo has to be in a certain area or a certain size or even if it has to be permanent, though those requirements could obviously be a determining factor for some folks seduced by the idea of ink and minor-league baseball tickets.

What’s the downside for the offer? None. It promotes a sponsor, got national exposure for the team’s artwork in the preseason, is a great call to action to remind folks that baseball is coming, and probably inspires some debate amongst fans who may already be inked and wouldn’t mind some free, low-cost ducats and some local celebrity status. Even if there is a winner, the chance that he or she would put a financial burden on a club with large areas of distressed seats is very low, and it opens the door for a larger scale tattoo night for any club willing to showcase body art as a way to draw fans. Nice score chiefs on a cold March week, when the local men’s college hoops  team will also send fans scurrying for warm weather thoughts with their early exit from the NCAA tournament.

Spokane Makes A Loud Statement: The ongoing controversy with the Washington Redskins name came up again this week in the Pacific Northwest, but in a positive manner, as the Spokane Indians announced the creation of a jersey in native Salish script.  While some may see this as yet another minor league marketing ploy, it actually speaks to the level of community that minor league teams have; they are not just brands looking to sell game tickets, they are 24/7 members of the places they live.  

The Indians have had a longstanding positive relationship with their local Native American tribesmen, and have looked to find ways to engage rather than exploit that relationship.  The latest step is the a new jersey featuring “Spokane” spelled out in Salish script: Sp’q’n’i (the “i” is followed by a circular symbol that is not part of the English language). It will be worn during weekend home games as well as June 13’s season-opening contest. Furthermore, a portion of the apparel sales proceeds will be donated to Spokane youth programs, as well as the money raised from an end-of-season auction featuring the Salish script game-worn jerseys.

Now yes the jersey will be a novelty and a collector’s item nationally.  The Indians are also not the only team to both acknowledge and assist the Native American ties to sport (The Oakland Raiders have broadcast games n Navajo and the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves have had longstanding programs designed to help the plight of Native Americans). Spokane’s move seems to be more cultural and less exploitive though. It shows an understanding of a core group of their fans who are looking to tell their story wider as their centuries old culture is sliding away, and may just be a great call to action to help raise funds and awareness of Native American traditions to casual fans who may not know anything about the history and plight of local tribes. A home run for branding, fan engagement , philanthropy and creativity.  

Take A Picture, Make The Jersey:  Minor league teams are always looking to push sales and be innovative, and with social media as a low cost engagement tool, the opportunity for fans to be in the conversation and engage with a club has never been higher. So it is interesting to see how innovative teams can be. One that has come up as unique are  the efforts of a Michigan Summer Collegiate League  to literally bring their fans faces into the game; not on a scoreboard or an add but on their jerseys.

The Kalamazoo Growlers are asking for fans to take selfies and post them to one of the team’s social media accounts. The Growlers will collect the selfies through April 1, then build a mosaic-style jersey assembled entirely from the photos entered in the promotion. The jerseys will be worn July 24 when the Growlers take on the Wisconsin Woodchucks on Salute to Selfie Night. 

The promo works for several reasons. The Growlers can collect data on thousands of fans from around the world to have for future promos. They will probably sell scores of jerseys that include fans photos to people who probably would never have purchased one before. They have the ability to get even more media exposure by helping tell the best stories of those who submitted selfies, and they also have the ability to engage casual fans who may love the social space but never thought to engage with the team. It is fun, creative, an attention getter and if it doesn’t work well; hard to say it won’t, didn’t really coast the club anything.

So there you have it, three solid promos that win on many levels for creativity, engagement, social responsibility and most of all, brand awareness. Congrats to all three minor organizations for some major league ideas.

Minor League Hockey Outlaws Try A Major Promotion…

The Federal Hockey League has made some valiant efforts  in its brief history as a northeast based low minor hockey league. They grabbed a name right out of pop culture, the legendary Federal League of “Slapshot” fame, and without the Paul Newman/Hansen Brothers inspired Charlestown Chiefs, set out to re-create old time hockey with the flair of minor league baseball. Some franchises, like the Brooklyn Aviators, who play in a converted airplane hangar, have drawn attention but few fans. Others like the Danbury Whalers have found a niche in a community, harnessed a dormant but popular name (the former WHA and NHL Whalers) and have done well to grow a minor league brand. Most of the others have come and gone in outposts like northern New Jersey and the Thousand Island region.

Their New Jersey team, the Outlaws, actually won the league title last spring, but never found the finances, the facility or the media attention to to come anywhere near an off-ice success. So the league and the team looked to move and found Williamsport, Pa., the home of the Little League World Series and the New York-Penn League Crosscutters, as a new home. Only one problem. There is currently no arena where the team could play effectively in 2012-13. At least no indoor arena? The solution? The league and the team announced that they will play their entire season outdoors at Bowman Field, the minor league home of the Crosscutters. The theory is that outdoor hockey will be fun, innovative and will draw both casual and diehard hockey fans in a town that enjoys supporting its own. After all, the NHL’s Winter Classic and other one-off outdoor game have done so well, correct?

Well, maybe. As a one-off outdoor hockey does well. It is a novelty when the setting and the weather cooperate. However to do an entire season, subject to all kinds of unpredictable conditions and asking fans to sit outside in freezing temperatures on weeknights, may be a lot to handle. There is also the potential damage to the field of an MLB-affiliated minor league team that could cost Williamsport much more than what they could gain from an FHL team. Minor league hockey in the best of conditions is a tricky business. Taking a low minor team outdoors  for a full season could almost be too much too handle.

Now maybe it will catch on as a one-year novelty that builds support for when the team can move back indoors in 2013-14. Maybe there are brands that will jump on to help promote, or others that support the Crosscutters will find ways to co-promote year-round (the baseball team is not involved in the hockey venture). Maybe the  city will be able to use the season as a tourist destination to drive revenue in a town without a lot of winter destination spots.  Maybe it will lead to even more exposure for the FHL as an innovative league that can draw more investors and stable franchises.

For a league looking to raise its profile, the announcement itself accomplished its goal. It created buzz. Now the next step is making it a viable business venture, not just an ill-timed promotion. Hopefully it will be successful for the hard-working people of Williamsport and for the entreprenurial folks at the Federal Hockey League and the players and coaches who are trying to use the league as a means to a bigger future.  If it does work, then the central Pennsylvania town will be  able to add outdoor hockey to its roster of Little League and minor league baseball success. If not, it’s another example of “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”  If it works, the OUT-laws will make the outdoors a new home for a year.

Thunder Roar In The Community

The Trenton Thunder have a great deal of intangibles in their favor. They are one of, if not the oldest current minor league team in the corridor between Washington and Boston, at least as far as affiliated teams go. Even better their affiliation is as the AA team for the New York Yankees, bringing all that power and pride with it. They sit in a beautiful ballpark on the banks of the Delaware River, drawing not just from urban Trenton but from across the river in Bucks County and from the affluent suburbs around Princeton, which also have the wealth of jobs and brands in New Jersey’s pharma industry. They are also affordable fun. But that’s not what really makes the Thunder so successful. It all helps, but they don’t take anything for granted and constantly find ways to exploit all those opportunities and build in new and meaningful promotions to make the organization one of the best not just in baseball, but in professional sports.
In short, The Thunder get it.
Yes the team has all the standard promotions, contests and giveaways, with the requite fireworks thrown in for good measure. However they constantly look to the community to find promotable areas to build legacy as well as fun. How? Here are some examples:
As part of the Yankees organization, the club participated in HOPE Week, taking Thunder players and staff out into the community to honor those less fortunate, and then bringing those worthy of being honored to the ballpark for a night. The team took it one step further by bringing the Thunder brand, and its positive messages to The Bronx one night as well, reinforcing their direct ties not just to the current club, but to the future as well, a solid message to send to fans.
Later this month the team will help out two of their own, current Yankees and Thunder alumni Robinson Cano’s and his RC 24 Foundation and David Robertson’s High Socks For Hope Foundation. The Thunder’s own MVP Foundation will present checks to Robinson Cano and David Robertson on behalf of their foundations in a ceremony on the field before the game. The Yankee All-Stars will also take part in the ceremonial first pitches, tying the parent club back to Trenton in a way casual fans will remember and few minor league teams get to do.
On Saturday, July 28, the team will stage its annual “Good Deed Game.” It is not about casual acts of good teams and players do, it is about raising real dollars in the community, with six local community organizations benefiting from Thunder largess. The Thunder will reward fans who support one, two, three, four, five or all six of the charities. The Good Deed Game will feature a blood drive to benefit the Community Blood Council of New Jersey, a school supplies drive to support the learning center at the East Trenton Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a non-perishable food drive to benefit the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, a toiletries drive to support HomeFront, a clothing drive that will benefit the Rescue Mission of Trenton, and new this year, a pet supplies drive to support The Shelter Animal Project.
Fans who donate to any one of the causes will receive a ticket to the Thunder ‘s Fan Appreciation Night vs. New Britain on Thursday, August 30 at 7:05 pm. People who donate to any two of the drives will get the game ticket and will throw a ceremonial pitch before the August 30 game. Three donations will result in the ticket, ceremonial pitch and the opportunity to watch the August 30 fireworks on the field. Fans who make four donations will receive everything above and a Thunder hat. Individuals who support five causes will everything above plus receive free parking on August 30. People who donate to all six will get everything plus a voucher for a free hot dog, popcorn and soda. It is a great idea to help fans graduate up for programs and give an immediate reward that benefits thousands, and a smart way to pull in solid charity support across the board.
The Thunder have also looked to the future, sponsoring and promoting the citizenship signup of 29 candidates on the field prior to a game in early July. What better way to promote American values and diversity, while showing fans and even players what American citizenship is all about. Overall, 29 citizenship candidates come from the following countries: Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Liberia, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam were involved in the program this year.
Now while some may say that free popcorn and extra on field contests will raise more in tickets and concessions than any of these programs, in truth the programs like this represent a strong way to promote long term fan loyalty not just for The Thunder but for the Yankees brand and for baseball as well. The core fans who enjoy the baseball experience will come and have to be sated, but the eternal quest for drawing new fans is the biggest challenge, and the Thunder, unlike many organizations major and minor, seem to have a finger on the pulse of how to lure media and new blood to their great product.
Now as we have said before, there are several great examples of smart businesses run through the eye of minor league baseball in the State of New Jersey and the area close by. The Blue Claws do an amazing job in Lakewood, the Patriots in Somerset and now the Boulders in Rockland County. However the Thunder, a team with a strong legacy, seem to really be looking forward and into the community like few others, and for their efforts deserve the props.
Keep hitting it long Trenton, great job all around.

Of Bulls, Isles and Curves…Some Good Ideas…

As we go through Relegation weekend in the Barclays PremierLeague (also an idea which would be interesting but not feasible for American sport), some good practices that came in from the last few days.

The Isles Keep trying: Early last year it was the Tattoo Franchise sponsorship, not the Islanders, again with a long offseason, have gone the viral route to promote their young star John Tavares for the cover of EA Sports NHL ’13 Game. The team has taken some of the great video games of the past and inserted Tavares into the covers, with the requisite twitter handle and call to action for their fans to vote. It’s smart to get out in front, smart to be creative and smart to support your young star and send the message that you are thinking about next season, even for a franchise as star-crossed and lost in the media mix as the Islanders are. Whether it works is secondary, as the team has no media footprint to promote by being out of the playoffs (while their local Rangers and Devils still play on at least for a while) and the campaign comes during one of the most crowded windows on the sports calendar, with baseball, hockey and hoops going full force and the monster of the NFL Draft coming into focus. Regardless, the campaign is fun, worthwhile and certainly a great example of being creative and making the most of what you have.

South Florida Goes All Out: The University of South Florida has its challenges trying to fill Raymond James Stadium for all their football home games, and they know one of those key steps to being relevant in the sports community year-round. So their promotion in the social space of their spring game this weekend, using every vehicle possible not just to drive awareness but to reward fans with prizes for creativity and support. This is not about just the spring game, it is about the growth of the USF brand into the fall, when real dollars are to be made. By doing all those efforts now, the Bulls can get the right support and casual fan awareness down the road. They realize it is a long, tedious haul that isn’t just about wins and losses. It is ablout being a part of the community.

Moyer One For The Ages…In Altoona: One of the great sports stories, at least for middle age men, is the Colorado Rockies’ Jamie Moyer winning a game at age 49. In recognition of the feat, the Altoona Curve has done what minor league baseball teams do best…seized the moment with a fun promotion. The Curve will offer $4.90 individual Diamond Club seats and a pair of Grandstand seats for the same price on Thursday night. Additionally, any Curve fans in attendance wearing 49ers gear of any team-from San Francisco’s NFL team to UNC Charlotte to Long Beach State-will get into the series opener with Richmond for free, as will fans wearing any jersey from one of Moyer’s eight MLB clubs over his 25-year career….anyone from America’s 49th state, Alaska, which achieved statehood just three years and ten months before Moyer’s birth, and any fan rocking stirrups emulating the lefty’s notable leg wear of choice. Fun move, easy to pull off, and again worthy of the being acknowledged for the spirit of creativity and timeliness.

A Titanic Anniversary Awaits…

The year 2012 will have the Centennial celebration for Fenway Park, with the Red Sox planning a series of events in and around the grand old park, which now is officially registered as a Historic Landmark as well. However April 14 marks another anniversary, one a little more dubious but noteworthy nonetheless, the centennial sinking of HMS Titanic. While the word “titanic” is synonymous with collapses of all kinds, it usually pops up in sports debacles as much as anywhere. There is actually a direct sports tie to the ship as well, pointed out very well in Lindsay Gibbs book “Titanic: A Tennis Story,” about survivors Dick Williams and Karl Behr, who went on to Hall of Fame careers.

However the great challenge around this anniversary will be to see which enterprising groups can hook on to the pop culture wave that will come with the Centennial, and the 3D release of the movie, to push some tickets and product. Will any minor league baseball teams launch “Titanic” nights, with huge sandwich offers and look a likes from the film…which websites will run stories of “Titanic” sports collapses…a natural with baseball starting. Going into an Olympic Year and a run up to the next America’s Cup, will there be oppts for the sailing and boating community to find ways to promote and talk about their sports? Heading toward London 2012, are there oppts. for UK athletes to tie on to the launch of the ship from Liverpool…and will the Liverpool club find a way to signify the memory of the ship? Or will it all slide below the waterline?

Titanic over the past 100 years, especially in the past decade between TV specials, expeditions and the film, certainly has found its way into popular culture. A Centennial is a perfect time to recognize and take advantage with some fun and unique promos, even for what was such a massive tragedy. It will be interesting to see who can play the phenomenon to their advantage as the 100 year anniversary dawns in a few weeks.

Big League Affiliation, No Minor Deal…

Like in many parts of the United States, Minor League baseball across New Jersey is firmly entrenched in the fabric of Garden State sports. From the inner cities of Newark and Camden to suburban Sussex County and The Shore, the ritual of packing up the kids for an inexpensive and fun night at the ballpark is not unlike what families used to be able to do with the Mets, Yanks or Phillies, whose prices and experience are now more the exception for family entertainment, not the rule, due to the high price of the MLB experience.

All the teams across the state offer their own customized experience of mascots, food, and in game fun that provides a great day or night for kids of all ages. The difference in between the states’ two Major League affiliated franchises, the Trenton Thunder (Yankees) and the Lakewood Blue Claws (Phillies) showed again last week, with Derek Jeter making an injury rehab stop in Trenton for a few days before returning to the Majors. That type of brand recognition and affiliation as a chance to really see the next stars of the game gives Trenton and Lakewood just a slightly added edge for the casual fan who may want to get that first glimpse at the future of the game. The financial offset (the parent clubs pay salaries an expenses for players and baseball staff) is also a boost for Trenton and Lakewood, but those intangibles of future stars are what can make or break in pulling dollars for attendance and concession, which leads to more money to invest back into the fan experience.

Now that is not to say that the Newark Bears or New Jersey Jackels or even the new Rockland Boulders just to the north don’t provide quality product. In many cases the play on the field for those teams, who have former MLB players in some cases and guys fighting to get recognized, is a bit higher than with the affiliated teams. But the cache of being associated and being able to use the marks and name of the parent club, especially ones that do as well as the Phillies and the Yankees, gives the other two franchises just that much more of an edge when selling their product to the casual fan. We live in a world where brand value and association is tantamount to success, and although we love to root for the underdog, we love even more being associated with best in class.

By being close enough to their parent club that a Jeter or a Cole Hamels can make a stop by and play a day or two on their field, Trenton or Lakewood get street cred that is hard to beat, and that spillover effect lasts long past the few days those stars are in uniform. It serves as a reminder to the fan that the players they see every day could be the next Jeter or Hamels as well. Does that make all the difference in the world for minor league entertainment? No. But it makes a slight difference, and when every dollar goes to the bottom line in the business of minor league baseball, those differences add up. The Thunder had three of their biggest crowds ever this past weekend, as well as a lifetime of memories for fans in a frenzy as Jeter chases hit number 3,000.

Catching A Simple Promotion Can Be The Best One…

Sunday morning as I was going to get bagels I heard New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan on “Ed Randall’s Talking Baseball” show on WFAN in New York talking about how the simplest of actions with his father, playing catch after work, were some of his brightest memories. Often times in big time sports and promotions it is the simple ideas that get lost as not glitzy or glammery enough, but with the right platform, can be the most effecting. Dolan’s thoughts this morning spurred one of those ideas.

Several years ago I was approached by a colleague, Lance Laifer, to see if there was a way to create awareness for an anti-Malaria campaign he had organized, and do it through sport. The idea was simple, take a nerf basketball hoop and pass it around with a ball through Madison Square Garden, letting each person in the arena dunk the ball, and with each dunk a dollar would be donated to charity. At some point it was going to become a logistical nightmare, setting the world’s largest dunk record, but the event worked. It got exposure for the charity, and as the ball and hoop were passed around the lower seats, several NBA officials and even some players took notice. One was Dikembe Mutombo, who used the idea and the platform to continue to grow his own initiative to eradicate malaria in his native Congo by purchasing bedding nets. The link between the basketball net and the mosquito net was simple, and eventually led Laifer’s group to an association with the NBA, national exposure and fundraising, and a leadership position which has helped eradicate the problem of mosquito-born malaria in Congo and other parts of Africa. All from a simple, cost efficient plan to dunk a nerf basketball. But timing, part passion, part simplicity helped a small idea contribute in a big way.

So now back to playing catch. Every year the Northern League St. Paul Saints hold the “World’s Largest Game of Catch” to kick off their promotional season. A simple act connects fans of all ages in a communal and promotable activity that links young and old, boy and girl, dad and son, mom and daughter. Timeless, simple, easy. So with all the charities, initiatives and campaigns out there, why hasn’t anyone latched on to a “Simple game of Catch” as an easy promotion at the Major League level? Lots of teams do runs around the bases, sleepovers and giveaways, but a linked, simple game of catch can be an amazing communal experience either as a fund raiser or as a stand-alone promotion. problems with liability if Johnny gets hit in the head? Use a soft ball. Problems in moving it along? Like Laifer’s idea make it a nerf promotion that goes around the stands and finishes on the field. If the simple act of dunking a nerf hoop literally helped to change lives, then a simple game of catch could as well. Just an idea.

And with that, Happy Father’s Day to all.