Players past and present are the pillars of marketing for Major League Baseball, and affiliated Minor League Baseball clubs often highlight the presence of highly touted prospects that will eventually be called up to “The Show.” There’s a reason why ballplayers make millions of dollars: They put butts in the seats.
But for unaffiliated independent leagues and teams, where athletes are not the draw, experiential marketing rules the day.
“The theme of independent professional baseball is virtually identical to affiliated Minor League Baseball: community recreational benefit, fun family value, very different from what most people encounter at the Major League level,” said Rick White, president of the Atlantic League, which currently consists of eight teams (two in Pennsylvania and one apiece in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Texas, as well as one traveling squad), with a ninth club to be added next season in North Carolina.
“For 95 percent of the guests who attend minor league baseball games of all kinds, they are not necessarily there based on the quality of performance, but they are definitely there to enjoy the quality of experience,” White added.
Common marketing themes throughout the minor leagues, affiliated and independent, include affordability, proximity to the field of play, access to players, community relations and activities geared toward families and kids, such as the several fireworks nights scheduled by the Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots, who play their home games in Bridgewater, N.J.
Other draws for families include perks such as father-and-son catches on the field, allowing kids to run the bases and activities within ballparks when kids’ attention wanes from the action on the field, like booths that measure the speed of their pitches and other carnival-type games.
“We’ve always looked at the competition as being other things that families can do during the summer,” said Marc Russinoff, vice president of public relations for the Patriots, adding that his ballclub focuses on being good neighbors and part of the community, providing good customer service and building a team not only with chemistry in the clubhouse in mind, but also with an eye toward players who “have fun, enjoy the experience, sign autographs. … We want our fans to love the players. If you don’t have that side to it, you’re not really going to engage fans.”
Steve Tahsler, deputy commissioner of the Frontier League, with 12 teams in the region of western Pennsylvania to eastern Missouri and the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, agreed, saying, “The bulk of our fans are not coming for the baseball itself, but for the overall atmosphere and experience. We can’t survive just on baseball fans: We cater to people looking for a good time and clean family activity.”
Social media is a key part of marketing efforts by independent league teams. Russinoff said the Patriots turn to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and “anything that can get us interaction and engagement with our fans,” adding, “Every day, we’re involved in trying to get not just the games out there, but different messages, fun videos, contests. It’s good for our marketing partners to be part of our social media campaigns.”
The Patriots team up with sponsors on contests such as trivia, word searches and the photo of the game, with prizes ranging from free food to gift certificates from those sponsors.
The ballclub’s sponsors range from national brands (Miller Lite, Ford, Izod) to New Jersey-centric brands (New Jersey Lottery, Rutgers University, NJM Insurance) to local businesses (the Bridgewater Commons mall, doggie daycare Camp Bow Wow, Flemington Department Store and local car dealers).
Just as in other industries, location is vital for independent league baseball. Tahsler said the Frontier League has found success with “traditional” minor league-type markets and suburbs of areas with MLB teams in place.
White added, “The observation [when the Atlantic League was founded in 1998] and continuing now is that many deserving communities that desire professional baseball cannot acquire a team, and this is a very strong motivator for the Atlantic League. Most of our clubs are within the shadow of a major metropolitan area.”
The ballparks themselves are a key factor, particularly for the Atlantic League, with White saying, “Ballpark design is a critical part of what we try to do. Every one of our ballparks represents an intimate experience.”
The Atlantic League has guidelines on the maximum capacity of its ballparks to retain that intimate feel, and in most cases, players access the dugout through the field, sparking interaction with fans. Most parks in the league also feature open concourses, enabling fans to follow the game while not actually sitting in their seats.
White said, “We are trying to make people feel like no matter where they sit in the ballpark, they are close to the action.”