Feature Article - March 2002
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Not So Minor Attractions

The major success of minor-league baseball

By Kelli Anderson

Ozzie, the mascot of the Kane County Cougars,
at a post-game fireworks show in Geneva, Ill.

Few things are as apple pie, flag-waving American in our collective psyche as baseball. And increasingly, since the late 1980s, few things are as popular with American families as our venerated national pastime thanks to a virtual revolution in minor-league baseball's marketing strategy and shift in focus. These days the minors are batting a thousand.

The way we were

Baseball, like any business, has had its many historical ups and downs. By the early 1980s, minor-league baseball was well past its glory days of post-World War II America—a time when nearly every city and cow-town had its own minor-league team to the tune of more than 450 in the league's association. After its peak—and still standing record attendance in the late 1940s—such things as television brought the major leagues into our living rooms and began a stagnation and decline of minor-league baseball's appeal.

Today, with only 160 AAA, AA and A affiliate teams in the association—now called Minor League Baseball—attendance is soaring and rivaling those earlier record numbers of attendance.

"Last season saw a total attendance of 38.8 million—that's the second highest in minor league's 100-year history," says Jim Ferguson, director of media relations for Minor League Baseball. In the last 10 years, 75 new stadiums have been built and more are on the way. Stands are packed, and minor-league baseball is back on top of its game.

What has revolutionized minor-league baseball in just 15 years has been the dramatic shift in its focus to a family audience, a shift in product identification from baseball to entertainment and a departure from traditional marketing methods to a more effective business-educated marketing strategy.

All in the family
Members of the Tennessee Smokies sign
pre-game autographs for fans.

The last 20 years have seen a dramatic change in the mindset of American parents. As the average number of children per family has declined, parental focus on children has increased, according to Jay Coakly, professor of sociology for more than 30 years in sports and leisure, now teaching at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.

"Kids have a greater concentration of parental attention than ever before," Coakly says. "Parents are expected to account for the whereabouts of their children in a way that is unprecedented in human history—in no society have parents been held accountable 24-7 for the whereabouts and behavior of their children as they are today."

For businesses, that translates into the need to be more accommodating to parents who insist on taking their children with them and where safety issues and child-friendly environments become paramount. Minor-league baseball, now focused on the family market, has developed a successful strategy to pursue and win the American family audience.

Hitting a Home Run with Families

The minor leagues have made some major discoveries about appealing to the needs and interests of the American family.

1. Money matters. Keeping the total cost of a family outing low and the perceived value high is an instant hit.

2. Safe and kid-enticing surroundings. Parents want to pursue their own interests and will feel secure knowing their kids are safe, within view, and having a good time of their own.

3. Comfort and convenience. Facilities that are comfortable and offer the little extras of family-friendly convenience go a long way to making a family feel welcome and willing to come back.

4. Education and community. Offering educational incentives to involve youngsters in your facility (reading programs, school-sponsored field trips, art contests) can go a long away.

5. Food. For those businesses offering food and drinks, include kid favorites packaged in creative ways.