By Barry Janoff
April 6, 2013: Minor League Baseball has long been a hit with players, fans and team owners and executives.
Now, MiLB wants to become a hit with Corporate America.
In 2013, MiLB includes 160 teams in 43 states and boasts an annual attendance of 41 million. Annual revenue tops $700 million, including $80 million in tickets, $70 million in concessions and $50 million in merchandise, Pat O'Conner, president and CEO for MiLB, told CNN for a story late last year.
According to Forbes, MiLB's five most valuable teams are the Sacramento River Cats (Pacific Coast League AAA/MLB affiliate Oakland A's; valued at $32 million); Lehigh Valley IronPigs (International League AAA/Philadelphia Phillies, $26 million); Round Rock Express (PCL AAA/Texas Rangers; $26 million); Frisco Rough Riders (Texas League AA/Texas Rangers, $24 million); and the Columbus Clippers (International League AAA/Cleveland Indians, $24 million).
Armed with this information, league executives are making what they said would be the first concerted effort to pitch Minor League Baseball as an entire entity to Corporate America under the umbrella marketing strategy "Project Brand." The plan is being spearheaded by Michael Hand, who this month was named as the first CMO in MiLB history, and comes with the backing of O'Conner, the 17-member Board of Trustees and the Affiliated Members and Council of League Presidents.
The concept behind Project Brand, which carries the umbrella theme, "160 Teams. One Brand," is to engage companies that operate on a national (and even global) platform to work with MiLB on a national basis. Meanwhile, the 16 individual leagues within MiLB — such as the Pacific Coast League, International League, Mexican League, Eastern League, Southern League and Texas League — and the teams within each of those leagues will be encouraged to continue to make marketing and sponsorship deals within their own territories.
Teams will also continue to do something that MiLB does better than any sports enterprise: Conceive and enact creative (aka wacky) promotions, such as "Toilet Seat Cushion Night"; "Shaka Smart Bobblehead Night"; "Spam Carving Night"; "Zubaz and a Monkey Night"; and "Tattoo Night."
The roots of Minor League Baseball trace back to 1868. The current incarnation was formed in 1901 and began play in 1902 as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. The modern-day structure — Triple-A, Double-A, Class A — was formed in 1963. In 1999, the NAPBL was rechristened as Minor League Baseball.
Most players who reach Major League Baseball do so via MiLB. Alumni range from Babe Ruth (Baltimore Orioles), Joe DiMaggio (San Francisco Seals), Willie Mays (Minneapolis Minors), Mickey Mantle (Joplin Miners) and Hank Aaron (Eau Claire Bears) to Bryce Harper (Harrisburg Senators), Stephen Strasburg (Syracuse Chiefs) and Mike Trout (Arkansas Travelers). MiLB has also been immortalized in Hollywood via such movies as Bull Durham (Kevin Costner), Brewster's Millions (Richard Pryor) and The Stratton Story (Jimmy Stewart).
The new movie about Jackie Robinson, 42, encompasses the time he spent in the minors with the Montreal Royals as well as his brief stint with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.
Hand brings with him to MiLB a resume that includes executive experience with BMW of America, General Motors, Hershey, Miller Brewing and, most recently, as svp-marketing and strategy for the IMG College division of global marketing and player agency IMG Worldwide.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Hand about marketing, building and enhancing MiLB.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What do you see as your objectives over the first 90 days, the first season and then moving forward?
Michael Hand: The first 60, 90, 120 days will be getting out on the road, meeting a lot of the owners, team presidents and executives. Getting more ingrained into what's going on in the business of Minor League Baseball. I come from one perspective, which is as a fan. And you enter this type of world strictly as a fan, you are not going to be very successful. That lifespan runs pretty quickly. But I am coming at it from a marketing perspective and trying to build a business. The best way to do that is to get out into the market, talk to the teams and owners, talk to fans. Get to understand what excites people about the brand and about Minor League Baseball. Over the next 120 days I expect to spend a lot of time on the road. I want to pull the curtain back and see what makes Minor League Baseball tick.
NYSJ: Minor League Baseball has had people involved with marketing, but never a CMO. Why now?
MH: Historically, Minor League Baseball has been more of a sales-driven organization than a marketing-driven organization. What I mean is that from a sales perspective there were corporations and folks out there who were looking to build partnerships. And we really have a a lot of strength in the B, C and D counties of America to really get out there and build those relationships. But the marketing was more or less was done on a local or team basis. Teams wanted to build their individual brands. But Minor League Baseball wasn't building much from a brand perspective as an overarching entity. We were more like a composite of 160 individual brands. We never branded for ourselves. So from a sales perspective, it was about selling those individual teams, even when we sold it from our national office.
NYSJ: What was being done from a marketing perspective?
MH: From a marketing perspective, there wasn't a whole lot of additional push behind building the Minor League Baseball brand. So you wouldn't see us push the brand the way you see Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA build their own brand. We put all that emphasis back on the individual team markets. But a decision was made that for us to really elevate and break into the next level, we needed more of an umbrella platform to help tell our collective story.
NYSJ: How enormous a task is it to get people to think of Minor League Baseball as a collective entity, considering it hasn't been presented that way for more than a century?
MH: That is probably the biggest challenge. But that is what we are attempting to do with Project Brand initiative. The idea is that we have an very interesting property that has gone largely untapped in its totality. Individual partners typically have gone off and bought local relationships, one market at a time. They would come to the national office (in St. Petersburg, Fla.) and say, I want to do a program in California. And we would Band-Aid together ten or 15 teams in a market. But people weren't coming to us to tap into the potential of all 41 million-plus attendees inn an annual basis. They weren't coming in to talk to Minor League Baseball on a national basis. So we want to change that dynamic and become more of a one-stop shop, rather than going around and doing a series of one-off individual relationships. We believe that by rallying the troops together and pulling the 160 teams under the strength of one collective message, we can spark and drive a lot of additional incremental revenue from partners as well as for our teams. And get them into meetings or relationships they might not have been exposed to before.
NYSJ: Do you have in your head or written down specific companies or categories you plan to target for Project Brand? Would they mirror the types of partners in MLB?
MH: I think it is a combination of those national marketers that align themselves with sports and baseball in particular, but also thinking out of the box. One of the initial areas would be consumer packaged goods, which is broad-reaching. That could be something such as household supplies, personal care products. There is not a single deal among our 160 teams in that category. Looking at a category such as pet food, which is a really interesting category, especially when you consider how many of our fans have pets and lends a lot of credibility when you look at all the fun opportunities with the mascots in Minor League Baseball. Outdoor grills. The home improvement category. We are thinking about summertime. People are outside. They are engaging with our teams. On the baseball field, we would like them to engage with some of these corporate brands, as well.
NYSJ: This is a significant B2B push, but will there be a fan or consumer element, such as TV, print or outdoor?
MH: The consumer-fan element is a bit father down the road. The initial pitch is to hit the street and speak to Corporate America about the power of Minor League Baseball. The average fan won't see much that is dramatically different. What they might see that is different, for example, is if we have the opportunity to go in and work with a packaged goods company. When you think of Minor League Baseball, you think of a local market: the local insurance guy, the local auto dealer, the companies that are in that community. And there is a lot of strength in that. But it is very difficult for the local teams to go to a national candy company, a national detergent maker, companies of that larger ilk and talk to them about building a program that works for you when the buying decisions are not being made in our backyard. The corporate decisions are not being made down the street from the office of the team in Birmingham or Lehigh Valley. They are being done incorporate headquarters. The goal of Project Brand will be to get out and talk to folks in Corporate America and try to get additional exposure in different categories, get different partners to come on board. And potentially leverage the broader intellectual property of all 160 teams together. That's what has been severely lacking.
NYSJ: The majority of players in MLB have spent some time in Minor League Baseball, and MiLB teams have working relationships with MLB teams. But what is the connection on the marketing and business side?
MH: Right now we are two completely separate entities. We have a strong working relationship with MLB, but there is a very clear delineation. We do work together with MLB Advanced Media in the interactive and Internet spaces. There is a strong working relationship with MLB in such spaces as MLB Charities and our diversity programs. But when it comes to pure marketing and sales efforts, there is a delineation between the two organizations.I would hope that over time, we would have some conversations and talk about the betterment of baseball in totality,. Again, further down the road, as part of a bigger brand initiative. But now, when it comes to day-to-day activation and partnerships, that is done as two separate organizations.
NYSJ: Wouldn't one of MiLB's biggest selling points be that the future stars of MLB will always come from MiLB?
MH: That's certainly true. When you look at all of the players who have appear in MLB uniforms, only a very small number of players have skipped the Minors to get to MLB. So when you think about it, we truly are the growth area for the MLB stars of tomorrow. So when folks want to see the next Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper, where they are going to see them is markets such as Harrisburg and Potomac. That's really where we think there is a huge opportunity to get some exposure on a national level.
NYSJ: In promoting the national Project Brand, are you still giving teams the opportunity to promote and push their local communities and the aspects and identities that make each one unique?
MH: Absolutely. And that might be the most important point. It is still business as usual for our local teams. They still own their markets and they still are going to go out and build those deep-seeded relationships with fans and businesses in their communities. None of that will change. We are looking at Project Brand as an extra layer of incremental opportunities for them. The biggest challenge for us is to get into other categories, go into unchartered space, where these teams have had difficulty, We believe we can create sponsorship platforms for them. This only works knowing that the 160 Minor League Baseball teams have supported it. They have blessed this initiative. They are on board with it.
NYSJ: What also makes Minor League Baseball so unique is the unusual and quirky promotions and PR campaigns that teams put on: digging for diamonds in the infield, giving away an all-expenses paid funeral, free admission to anyone who will get a tattoo during the game, Farewell to Twinkie Night (coming this season from the Inland Empire 66ers). Will those be affected?
MH: [Laughs.] They will continue. We want there to be unique local messaging, attitudes and that whimsical nature of Minor League Baseball. We are not going to change that. Teams use that to their advantage in their local communities. There is a reason that parents bring their kids to Minor League Baseball teams and let their kids run around the bases and stay after games for fireworks. There is a strength in that. They have built up that equity over time. If anything, we want to create some unique opportunities, provide some different access points for Corporate America and fans to be part of. We don't want to mess up the fabric of what team's are now doing. We want to be an add-on, a plus-one by creating new ideas, new areas, and then pull that all together, leveraging the collective intellectual property of these really unique brands so that they can amplify their flavor on a national level.
NYSJ: You spent several years with IMG College. Do you see any similarities between the demographics and marketing college sports and marketing Minor League Baseball?
MH: There are a lot of similarities between Minor League Baseball and what's going on in the college space today. When you look at the college space, it comes down to a very similar scenario. A lot of the strongest teams on the college level aren't based near major metro areas. The are a lot of colleges in ancillary markets, places like Austin, Ann Arbor, Columbus. There are not initially markets that pop up when people think about places to build a brand. Not like Chicago or Los Angeles or Miami. But these places have strong followings, strong fandom. There are strong relationships that people have with their school. But Minor League Baseball is different in that you don't necessarily graduate from a university and take that loyalty with you when you move across the country.
"A decision was made that for us to really elevate and break into the next level, we needed more of an umbrella platform to help tell our collective story."
NYSJ: How are you positioning MiLB versus other pro sports leagues to Corporate America?
MH: One thing that we can offer which is different from the professional leagues, and in particular Major League Baseball, is that we have affordability and a family context. We're not going to shy away from that. The reason we get 41 million-plus attendees annually is because people can afford to take their family to a game and have a fun evening. We don't want to change the nature of what Minor League Baseball is all about. So there is a bit of a different audience than college sports.
NYSJ: How would you position MiLB's demographic to companies?
MH: We see ourselves as being, and we are not afraid to talk about that fact that, we are about middle America. We are about moms with kids. We are about an affluent fan that people tend to forget about when thinking about Minor League Baseball. But we are taking a deep dive, looking at the demographics and trying to unleash from a research perspective more insight as to who that fan is. People will be presently surprised when we start to retell our story about who the fan is who goes to our ballparks.
NYSJ: With the Jackie Robinson movie, 42, coming out, there is emphasis on the roots of baseball. And when you look at the great players in baseball history, such as Robinson, most of them played in the Minors before they went to MLB. How important will that be in getting companies, athletes and fans involved in Project Brand?
MH: It has been and will continue to be a very important part of our story. One of my first days here, I met with a variety of folks, from league presidents and team owners to other executives. At one point I was introduced to Branch Rickey. And I laughed and said, 'Aren't you being played by Harrison Ford?' It was, of course, was Rickey's grandson, Branch Barrett Rickey, who is president of the Pacific Coast League. So its not just the players who have been part of the history of Minor League Baseball, it's also owners, managers, coaches. We are the breeding ground of what's next and what happens in the game of baseball. To really be connected to that type of environment and allow fans to get up close and see that and touch that and build those memories part of the huge opportunity of where we want Minor League Baseball to go.
NYSJ: What's the over-under on how many miles you might travel in your first season?
MH: [Laughs.] To get to where I have to go, there will be multiple connections probably every day. So I'm going to focus on doing multiple legs rather than overall mileage. But I'll be on planes, trains, in automobiles, whatever I need to get to the places where Minor League Baseball plays. Some of these markets are hard to get to, but I'll get to them.
Minor League Baseball Names Marketing Vet Michael Hand As First CMO
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