Marketing sports events can sometimes be a difficult task. For minor league baseball, it’s even more difficult.
For families with limited disposable income, luxuries like sporting events are often the first things to go. Vast improvements to the home viewing experience have discouraged many from attending games, and a team’s poor performance remains a safe bet to clear seats.
While all of these challenges are there for anyone trying to market a sporting event, they are only the beginning of the complicated task of promoting minor league baseball.
Dealing with the sport’s developing players and with roster setup completely out of their control, minor league executives cannot use their team’s players to promote the organization. If a Double-A team schedules a bobblehead party for a player, they should do so knowing that the individual whose cartoon nods to fans may no longer be on the team by the time the promotion takes place. .
Also, few people at a minor league game really care about the product on the field.
“One of the things that makes minor league baseball unique is that they actually need to develop a presence or an identity within the community to be able to cultivate interest,” said Mark Lyberger, author of “Sport Marketing: A Strategic Perspective” and Kent State Professor. “So often the most successful teams in minor league baseball have cultivated an interest in engaging the community, so I think a lot of consumers of this particular product see that as part of what the community has to offer. ”
Perhaps no minor league organization has mastered this community relationship as well as the Dayton Dragons. A singles A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, the Dragons have played in front of a sold-out Fifth Third Field a record 1,107 times to date. The team is on course to sell out 1,121 consecutive games by the end of the season, one of which is expected to be the club’s 16th consecutive peak attendance season.
“We embraced the idea that the entertainment and gaming event was probably going to be the best way to promote being a Dayton Dragon fan,” Dragons president Robert Murphy said. “We’ve spent more time and more money on this entertainment, gaming-related experience than many other organizations would.”
This idea—selling the environment and atmosphere to the entire community rather than the actual gameplay—is the backbone of profitable minor league baseball.
The Dragons have maximized their relationship with the community and it starts with their season ticket holders, a group they retain about 95%, according to executive vice president Eric Deutsch.
The team connects each season ticket holder with a specific ticket representative and ensures that the name and face of that employee is known to the season ticket holder. The connection is taken a step further with promotional evenings that offer gifts only available to subscription holders. If you establish a relationship with the Dragons by becoming a ticket holder, it won’t be a one-way street, as the organization makes the process fun with everything from sending out tickets in unique packaging (everything from fake cereal boxes with the team mascot to engraved cigar boxes) to make sure their bills don’t look traditional.
“We want you to have that emotional connection,” Deutsch explained.
Lyberger — who called the Dragons “one of the best examples in history” of minor league marketing — said Dayton, like all minor league teams, can provide a fun, safe and family-friendly environment.
About 60 miles to the east, the Columbus Clippers sell the same kind of home environment and have good success themselves. The Cleveland Indians affiliate was fourth in average attendance among 30 Triple-A teams, according to milb.com.
While the Clippers offer a family environment, they would also be foolish to ignore Columbus’ large college demographics. With Ohio State University one of the top five schools in the nation, on-the-road promotions like the weekly Thirsty Thursday beer promotions seek to draw in that crowd.
“I think in a lot of communities, college demographics become a big factor,” Lyberger said. “Affordability, convenience for the student become very important in this environment.”
Clippers president and general manager Ken Schnacke said he still wants those in attendance to care about the outcome on the field, but understands the reality that many don’t. He knows he has to play with the demographics he has and focus on selling things that stay the same, like Huntington Park, which won Baseball Digest’s Baseball Stadium of the Year when it opened in 2009. It was also named Triple-A Park of the Year by the same publication in June.
While operating in the vast market provided by Columbus has its advantages, there are other unique challenges for minor league baseball in Ohio’s capital.
“There’s an awful lot to do in Columbus, that’s the trade-off,” Shnacke said. “We try to appeal to the college crowd, but as our season heats up, they come out in May for the summer. I’m not sure that’s a big advantage for the whole season.
“We are a triple A club in a big city with more fans at our disposal, but we are not the king of the mountain here. You have Ohio State and the Blue Jackets (NHL) and the Crew (MLS). »
All sports marketing is about selling an entertaining experience, but at the major league level and in other sports, much of that work is done by the product on the field. In minor league baseball, it’s just a small piece.
“It’s an entertainment experience,” Murphy said. “Baseball is one of them.”