By Barry Janoff
July 25, 2016: If you're looking for diamonds buried in the infield of a baseball stadium, or diamonds in the rough that could become gems, Minor League Baseball has plenty of that and more.
With a history that dates back to 1901, MiLB encompasses 19 leagues nationwide and in Mexico, Rookie to Triple-A, including 160 teams with such iconic names as the Toledo Mud Hens, Las Vegas 51s, Frisco RoughRiders, Sacramento River Cats, Columbus Clippers and Durham Bulls.
Some 42.5 million fans passed through MiLB turnstiles last season, as much to see potential future Major League Baseball stars — and in some cases established MLB players back for short rehabs — as to enjoy the ambiance of a game that still resonates with home-cooking and rustic personalities.
The combined retail sales of all 160 teams set a MiLB record in 2015, topping $65.1 million, a 7.9% increase over 2014's $60.3 million, which had been the highest total recorded since MiLB's licensing program began in 1992.
MiLB also said that online purchased played a significant role in the steady growth of league-wide merchandise sales, with a 9.4% increase over 2014. Of the Top 25 teams, 23 have online stores using the MiLBStore.com platform, according to the league.
Companies are paying attention. In February, John Deere became the "preferred sports turf equipment supplier" for MiLB, with teams "incentivized" to use John Deere equipment in ballparks nationwide.
In June, Esurance, the online division of Allstate, became the exclusive home and auto insurance partner for MiLB, and, as such, the only brand to sponsor both MiLB and MLB nationally.
MilB's national marketing roster also includes E&J Gallo's Barefoot Wine, Uncle Rays (official potato ship), OnDeck Capital and SunRun home solar energy systems.
Another stat of which MiLB is most proud is that, since 1965, all but 21 men who have played in MLB have spent some time in MiLB. That includes 2015 MVPs Bryce Harper (Harrisburg Senators) and Josh Donaldson (Midland Rockhounds) and 2014 MVPs Clayton Kershaw (Jacksonville Suns) and Mike Trout (Arkansas Travelers).
Of course, MiLB games are not just competitive, but thinking way out of the box fun. Among the promotions this season:
"Asparagus Night" hosted by the Stockton (CA) Ports, complete with asparagus-green jerseys adorned with pictures of asparagus.
"CATurday" hosted by the Lakewood (NJ) BlueClaws, with cat-pictured jerseys, a rendition of "Take MEOW To The Ball Game" and an invitation for fans to bring their cats to the game.
"Diamond Digs" hosted by the Syracuse (NY) Chiefs and the Sugar Land (TX) Skeeters, allowing fans to take shovels to the infield in their respective stadiums for the opportunity to uncover a piece of diamond jewelry. The South Maryland Blue Crabs held a similar promotion last year.
The Fresno Grizzlies celebrated the 30th anniversary of the release of the movie, Three Amigos, which starred Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short, with mariachi-themed jerseys. The team previously changed its name for one night to the Fresno Tacos, complete with taco-inspired hats and jerseys.
"David Ortiz Buzz Bobble Head Night" hosted by the Salt Lake Bees, which will honor the pending retirement of their former player (1997-99 when they were known as the Buzz), with an Ortiz bobble head in a throwback Buzz uniform.
This past January, David Wright was named Chief Marketing & Commercial Officer for MiLB following more than a decade in executive positions for Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing (the marketing arm of MLS), most recently as its Senior Vice President, Global Sponsorship.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Wright about national marketing, the challenge of retaining MilB's rustic ambiance while catering to a tech-savvy fan base and the advantage of putting cats, asparagus and tacos on baseball jerseys.
NYSportsJournalism.com: You are a long-time soccer guy, so how and why did you become CMO for MiLB?
David Wright: I had a great run at MLS. I grew up playing the game. I played in college. It was in my blood. But from a professional standpoint, it got to the point where for me to get to the next level, I felt as if I needed to diversify. There were a number of things that ultimately led me to MiLB and moving to St. Petersburg (Florida, where MilB is based). The way I see it, MiLB is a 115-year-old startup from a national perspective. So there was the opportunity to be part of baseball history but also join an organization that is growing, building and looking for new ways to reach more fans. Plus, it is something that is a fun adventure for my family. Now, about six months in, I can say I made the right decision.
NYSJ: There obviously are differences between baseball and soccer, but do you see similarities between MiLB and MLS in the way fans are part of the game, players are readily accessible and marketing is not hesitant to go outside the box?
DW: MLS has done a great job of driving local relevance. The Portland Timbers, for example, are incredibly relevant in Portland. Sporting KC is incredibly relevant in Kansas City. The same can be said for the 160 clubs across MiLB. What I now have access to in MiLB, which for a while was a bit of a challenge in MLS, is scale. Scale is not an issue in baseball, and specifically with MiLB. But when you start to drill down, the access and local relevance in MiLB is off the charts. If you go to a Sacramento River Cats game, the atmosphere is incredible. When you go to a Dayton Dragons game, they've sold out games for a decade. So it's been fascinating for me to come in and see the history and the relevance in all of these markets. For me, it further supports why there is such a great opportunity here.
NYSJ: Would you also compare it to the NFL's Green Bay Packers, where the fans are the owners and the whole community seems to live and breath with the team, and the team has national relevance?
DW: 100%. The local communities and owners in MiLB have done a tremendous job for generations of building these businesses and driving the relevance. Now it is up to us in the MiLB office, and ultimately why I was hired, to aggregate that, to wrap our arms around the massive scale to tell a great story. That's what we are in the process of doing.
NYSJ: How would the signing of Esurance as a national partner reflect deals in the future?
DW: Esurance's strategy as a company is off the charts. Moving forward, that's exactly the type of company with which we want to align on a national level. Before signing with us, they already had a tremendous experience in baseball. For us, our ability to tell this one story, one brand story really resonated with them. For the right category, and the right brand in those categories, that's a big opportunity when you think about sports.
NYSJ: Why is that?
DW: There is no other sport that has the scale and number of markets that MLB and MiLB have. So for the right brand that can truly own the baseball category, that is pretty powerful. And, for a company such as Esurance, they are all about being modern. We were very successful working with them on a 'Call Up Worthy' campaign to celebrate that iconic moment when an MiLB player gets called up to the Majors. They are a sophisticated, strategic brand that wants to own their category in baseball, and we are fortunate to be part of it.
NYSJ: They use Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants in national advertising, but can they translate that to MiLB by using local players in national campaigns?
DW: Using Posey is an incredible national platform. With MiLB, you will see Esurance, in addition to the national 'Call Up Worthy' effort, going deep into a number of their priority markets and having a number of meaningful club relationships. But they also will align with brand ambassadors who will amplify and tell the message. As part of the deal, there also is the Esurance Rising Star Students (with support from MiLB charity partner Big Brothers Big Sisters of America); Esurance September Call-Ups (leading to the post-season) and the Esurance Home Field Advantage Award (recognizing the MiLB club with the highest percentage capacity in each of its 14 leagues).
NYSJ: When you sign companies to national deals, do you have to avoid conflict of interests with your leagues or teams that might have deals with competitors in respective categories, or does the MiLB office work indecent from that?
DW: Project Brand ('160 Team. One Brand') is our over-arching initiative, our ability to aggregate the scale of MiLB. We have a really good pulse on the success our clubs are having in their respective local markets. There is a lot of connectivity. In the case of Esurance, truly understanding local partnerships is important. So that did get factored in. But the model we now have works. You'll see us be very strategic in how we go to the market.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us. But we've got a great foundation and I'm really bullish on where this is headed."
NYSJ: Are there specific details?
DW: There are a number of things that will drive that. Understanding what are MiLB's unique selling points. First, it starts with the fan, the consumer. Over-indexing families. Household income is high. Tech savvy. Smart business owners. Active lifestyles. For the right brands, you can quickly see why our fan would resonate with their business objectives. Second, we have to fish where the fish are. Those categories that have a propensity to strategically invest in sport and entertainment is the space in which we need to play. Third, what really serves as a point of difference for us is B2B. Our ability to wrap our arms around 160 clubs and the scale that footprint brings to drive business to brands is incredibly powerful. The John Deere relationship we unveiled a few months back is a great example. When you look at it through those three lenses, you start to have a very clear path of how you are going to approach the marketplace. We are well on the road to doing that. And if early signs are any indication, we are on to something big.
NYSJ: Have recent deals, such as those with John Deere and Esurance, opened other doors to potential deals or jump-started conversations with other companies?
DW: Certainly. We have all but closed the books for 2016, which is important from a sales-cycle standpoint. We are now 100% focused on 2017 and beyond. Our ability to bring on John Deere, Esurance; Uncle Rays, which has aspirations to be a progressive player in the national potato chip space; we've had a great long-standing relationship with Gallo Wines. People are starting to take notice. But it's incumbent upon us to go out and tell our story. In the time I've been here doing that, hearing the receptiveness of corporate decision makers has been really interesting. People are blown away by the numbers: 107 million fans, 43 million people attend MiLB games, 160 markets. It's also been interesting in that every person I've spoken with has their own MiLB story. And that it was a positive experience. We have a lot of work ahead of us. But we've got a great foundation and I'm really bullish on where this is headed.
NYSJ: Can you talk about the alliance between MLB and MiLB regarding the fact that almost every MLB player over the past 50-60 years has spent time in the Minors.
DW: The exact stat is that since 1965, every player who has played in MLB with the exception of 21 played at some point in their career in MiLB. Why that is so powerful is that you will see us invest a lot of time, energy and resources in the content space. Every single one of those players has a story. And how we package and tell those stories is important and serves us with incredible opportunities. It goes back to the connectivity between MiLB and MLB.
NYSJ: How much fun, and how valuable, is it for you to travel to different MiLB communities to see how they connect with their local team, and how the team seeks to connect with them?
DW: That is a big part of what I do. Spending times with clubs is important because, this being my first season and being in a completely different space from MLS, I am going through a learning curve. On one recent trip, I spent a night with the Modesto Nuts, and the next night I was with the Sacramento River Cats. Spending time at the ballpark, meeting the leaders at each of the clubs, spending time with existing partners and being out the marketplace telling our story at conferences and meetings is vital. And I have found that people are blown away with where MiLB is headed.
NYSJ: Do you find that when a local team has a promotion that gets great response and publicity, sometimes nationally, it boosts the image and visibility for all of MiLB and not just for the team itself?
DW: We have. In some respects, MiLB clubs have been setting the stage and have been on the cusp of creativity for generations. On a national perspective, that's a model for us to follow. One of our points of differentiation is, from a national perspective, our ability to think creatively outside the box, to do things differently, which, quite frankly, other properties can't do. We will be smart and strategic. But you will see us roll some things out which speak to that creativeness. As the commercial space becomes more sophisticated, we are going to be challenged from a macro perspective to think outside the box and to be creative to justify the investment that brands are expected to make. That's a big area of opportunity and one that we will take advantage of as we move forward.
NYSJ: You mentioned tech-savvy MiLB fans, so is there a challenge to be progressive and incorporate technology through such partners as Esurance but not lose the home-grown, not overtly corporate, maybe rustic image that has always been part of MiLB?
DW: It is a delicate balance. It starts with our vision, and our vision is simple: Be a progressive leader in the sports and entertainment space. As part of that vision, we have an incredible opportunity to be a leader in the technology space. And not discount or moving away from the core that has made us so relevant in our local markets. There are some things you will see us invest in that will keep us on the cusp of a technology revolution. Think about tickets, the ticketing experience. The overall stadium experience. Other consumer touch-points. Content. Packaging. How are we telling our various stories. And providing content anywhere our fans want to access it. We've seen a growth in our licensing business, and a lot of that was fueled by the success we've had online. It's an enormous opportunity for us. I think you'll see us double-down without losing focus on the core that makes MiLB so great.
NYSJ: What is your marketing and business schedule for 2017 and beyond?
DW: We are already well down the road for 2017 planning. My initial priority was one of infra-structure. We have hired a number of folks and are in the process of hiring a few more. Getting the infra-structure right to support long-term success is very important. And we've made great strides there. Moving forward, you'll see a big effort to bolster all of our team media. We have a great long-standing relationship with MLB Advance Media (which oversees MiLB.com). But how do we extend that? What other opportunities are there from a media perspective that will drive greater distribution and scale? We are spending a lot of time thinking about white space opportunities, which goes back to our abilities to do things that other properties can't.
NYSJ: Is there an area that you see as driving other marketing and growth opportunities?
DW: Arguably, one of the more important questions is, how do we — meaning the national office in St. Petersburg — become a strategic resource for 160 clubs? We have 160 clubs that have done a tremendous job driving their business locally. How do we centralize best practices, key learnings and truly become a strategic resource for our clubs. Right now we have 43 million people going through our turnstiles. If we are able to provide research that is applicable to the club in their own market that helps them become more strategic in terms of how they sell their tickets. If we increase 2% over 43 million attendance — that is a big deal. You 'll see us really hone in on the infra structure necessary to do that over the next few years.
NYSJ: You love soccer, but it sounds as if MiLB is not disappointing you in terms of challenges and enjoyment.
DW: It is an exciting time. I'm having an absolute blast. And we're just getting started. The bottom line is fan experience and about the fans having a good time.
MiLB Adds Esurance To Corporate Roster
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