Minor League Baseball has long been a hit with players,
fans and team owners and executives. Now, MiLB wants to become a hit with
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
worth between $24 million and $32 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."
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 senior VP of marketing and strategy for the IMG College division
of global marketing and player agency IMG Worldwide.
NYSportsJournalism.com spoke with Hand about reaching out to
marketers, and building and enhancing MiLB.
Minor League Baseball has had people involved with
marketing, but never a CMO. Why now?
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 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.
What was being done from a marketing perspective?
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.
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?
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 a 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.
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?
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.
This is a significant B2B push, but will there be a
fan or consumer element, such as TV, print or outdoor?
The consumer-fan element is a bit farther 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 in corporate 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.
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?
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.
Wouldn't one of MiLB's biggest selling points be that
the future stars of MLB will always come from MiLB?
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.
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?
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.
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
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 teams 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.
You spent several years with IMG College. Do you see
any similarities between the demographics and marketing college sports and
marketing Minor League Baseball?
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. There 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.
How are you positioning MiLB versus other pro sports
leagues to Corporate America?
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.
How would you position MiLB's demographic to
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.
What do you see as your objectives over the first 90
days, the first season and then moving forward?
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.
What's the over-under on how many miles you might
travel in your first season?
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.
This Q&A was reprinted with permission ofNYSportsJournalism.com.