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.

Cheering for the cheap seats
Crowded stands at the Tennessee Smokies
Stadium in Kodak, Tenn.

"Minor league has worked hard to keep very affordable," says Ferguson, who notes that for many families wanting to go to a major-league game, the price is often prohibitive and doesn't even offer discounts for children—a seat is one price, no matter who sits in it. A survey of 160 teams in June 2000 conducted by Minor League Baseball showed that for a family of four, the total price of a trip to a minor-league ball game including four hot dogs, two sodas, two beers and parking was less than $40. Add to that the frequently free promotional hats and T-shirts, and most would agree that you've got a pretty amazing cost-for-value. Comparison wise, a similar outing to a major-league game might cost the family budget a ballpark figure of $100 or more. Quite a big-league difference.

Here's the pitch

But what really makes the difference is entertainment.

"We consider ourselves to be G-rated, family-fun entertainment," says Curtis Haug, assistant general manager of the Kane County Cougars, class A affiliates of the Florida Marlins, in Geneva, Ill. "Baseball is secondary; entertainment is number one. Our most popular thing is post-game fireworks, and we also do between-inning games and promotions. It's big. At pre-game we allow families on the field. They get autographs from the players, and kids can run the bases. We've even had nuns and people in wheelchairs out there."

Ozzie races a young fan
at a Cougar's game.

Minor-league baseball has spared no expense or creative energy to keep the audiences coming. And those in the industry are not shy about sharing what works.

"We use each other a lot—we talk to each other," says Brian Cox, assistant general manager of the Tennessee Smokies in Kodak, Tenn., the season 2000 winners of Minor League Baseball's coveted programming award, the Larry MacPhail Trophy. "We see it and don't mind copying it. That's the best and nicest form of flattery to use what others are doing."

Whether it's fireworks displays, themed playgrounds, crazy between-innings antics, lovable mascots, kiddie-sized concessions, speed-pitch zones, inflatables or swimming pools, toddlers to teens find plenty to do and enjoy during a typical game at any one of the minor-league ballparks around the country.

And the entertainment appeal is broad—there is something for everyone: Comfortable picnic areas, mouth-watering concessions, specialty beers, deck-lounges and fantastic seating venues attract the attention of the more mature audience.

And let's not forget the baseball. Although minor-league teams can't win spectators based on the names of their ever-changing rosters, they can market the baseball experience.

"A baseball fan would come here anyway, so we don't target them—we market to those who may have no interest in the game and hope they have such a great time that they'll become baseball fans," reasons Scott Hunsicker, assistant general manager of the Reading Phillies in Reading, Pa. "We market to families and especially to the mother—if its a good place for kids, the dad will be more likely to come, and mothers want that."

Parents can enjoy the game; kids can enjoy everything else.

Safety first

Part of the family's enjoyment comes from the fact that stadiums, both new and newly renovated, have intentionally designed the children's attractions to be within eye-view of parents. For a parenting generation that is keen to keep tabs on their children at all times, it is freeing for them to know they can let their children roam within the safe confines of the ballpark and within view.

"Since families are our main target, children come to the game, and families know that if the kid wanders or wants to go somewhere else in the park, it's safe," says Ryan Bardi, a group sales specialist from the Reading Phillies. "We try to keep it as clean as possible, and parents have the peace of mind knowing their kids are having fun and that it's safe."


If you build it, they will come—in droves

Designing a facility that meets the needs of this child-conscious market is another must. Thanks, in part, to the 1989 Professional Baseball Agreement, a contract between the major and minor leagues to set up minimum facility standards at ballparks, many ballparks knew they either had to build a new park or renovate existing ones. Although some, like the Reading Phillies, saw the value of preserving the classic look to give patrons a sense of baseball nostalgia, the vast majority opted to start over from scratch. The resulting designs took the needs of all their patrons into account: adults who go to actually enjoy the game, large groups enjoying a special event, and families wanting a safe and fun environment.

For example, in 1995, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the Durham Bulls in Durham, N.C., was built by HOK Sport, architects out of Kansas City, Mo. The lead architect on the project at the time, Tom Tingle (now the project manager for the Durham Bulls), had extensive experience designing to the needs of minor-league baseball stadiums with more than 20 parks to his creative credit.

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park was designed to seat more than 10,000 and contains many of the successful elements of a family-friendly facility.

"Among the trends in the last 10 years for families are playgrounds that are well designed and positioned so that parents can watch the game and the kids," Tingle says. Picnic areas are another popular feature that are more geared to group sales but also to children. Then there are what he terms "the alternative areas of revenue"—carousels, video-game arcades, speed-pitch batting cages and the like to occupy the attention of the children. Even concessions get in the game, geared to kids with selections of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served from kid-sized counters.

Comfort with a view is another important factor. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park has roofed seating for 2,500, all with extra-wide seat backs, lots of legroom and cup holders. Every seat is up-close and personal, typical of the intimate, community feeling of many minor-league stadiums.

Facilities are also designed to be flexible. With everything from carnivals to you-name-it pre- and post-game events, many ballparks now include a wide concourse outfitted with the necessary power, water supply and weather-protection features to accommodate a wide variety of ventures.

To market, to market

Minor-league baseball isn't all fun and games, however—it's also become a smarter business. In 1988, Craig Stein bought the Reading Phillies, a AA affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, and hired Chuck Dominoe as general manager. Dominoe, then a recent graduate with a newfangled degree in sports management from Biscayne College in Miami, Fla., was part of a new generation with new ideas and marketing savvy.

"Craig never owned a team before, but I came with a vision for family entertainment—Craig came with two young daughters—and then shared that vision," Dominoe says. "We wanted to keep it upbeat and fun, and this was at a time when it was hitting home in the late '80s, and everybody 'got it.'"

What Dominoe and others in the late '80s "got" was the answer to minor-league baseball's fan-base woes: families and the marketing techniques to draw them.

More bang for the buck

Previously, minor league's idea of marketing was to have a company buy up 10,000 tickets for 50 cents apiece and give out free tickets. This was considered a great promotion. All it did, however, was to cheapen the product. Nobody would buy. Stein and Dominoe decided to invest the same $5,000 to buy quality, long shelf life items printed with the team logo. People were willing to pay full price tickets to get a quality item.

Fans can log some splash time at the Reading
Eagle Pool Pavilion at the Reading Phillies GPU
Stadium in Reading, Pa.

"For the same money, we got a lot more bang for the buck—3,000 to 4,000 people to buy a ticket at full price and get an item with our name on it," Dominoe says.

After getting a little successful, Dominoe says, you get more people to buy tickets and reinvest it in the facility. The facility grows, and you invest some more.

With each new addition to the facility at Reading's GPU Stadium, community interest grew. A now 52-year-old classic brick ballpark has been renovated several times over and recently celebrated the completion of the $1.4-million Reading Eagle Pool Pavilion. The 1,000 square-foot heated swimming pool with two levels boasts water cannons and waterfalls and was created as part of a three-tiered deck picnic area off right field. And this is no ordinary picnic area—it features 31 picnic tables (each with their own closed-circuit TV), an impressive two-hour catered buffet, private restrooms and locker rooms. "It's just awesome," Hunsicker says. "It's the baseline of our business."

Set apart from the crowd

Such mouth-dropping features at ballparks are part of an ongoing effort for each park to set itself apart, to offer something that can compete with anything the community can offer.

"We had 460,000 last season," Hunsicker says. "The pool is the hinge that everyone talks about. This is different. It's got waterfalls and cascades—we wanted it to be the best. We have themes here: The traditional hot dogs and popcorn have an old-time park feel; the deck area is like a restaurant; and the picnic area is as nice or nicer than you'll ever get for family reunions and company parties. We try to compete with those people and just happen to have a game going on too."

The young and the restless

Unlike major-league games where it might be a challenge for children to sit for long uninterrupted periods of time, minor league is designed to allow little wigglers to move around and enjoy the ballpark's many kid-friendly distractions. And what could be kid-friendlier than a giant walking, talking furry mascot inviting the kids to come out to the field or to play with them in the stands?

Fans of all ages find extra fun at the Durham
Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C.

With the popularization of mascots, now an essential ingredient at any minor-league ballpark, have come a variety of marketing successes: mascot fan-clubs, mascot appearances in the community or for hire at private functions, and mascot-inspired educational programs.

The latter—baseball coming into the schools and promoting education—has been a recent big winner both for the schools and for the ballparks. Many ballparks now sponsor reading programs that reward the children at completion with free games and the chance to be recognized on the field in a special presentation all their own. Kids love it, and ballparks love the good PR

Even more exciting are entire curriculums being created around baseball in the off-season to teach math, science, history, art—you name it—in which little junior's interest in baseball (or at least the mascot!) is used as the vehicle to teach.

"We have education days," says Mike Birling, now in his ninth year as assistant general manager of the Durham Bulls. "We take all the schools in North Carolina and get a lesson plan. Teachers come on each day and talk about math, stats, history—and tie in a baseball lesson plan. They do this for five days in Akron and sell out every time. It's very successful. Then there's field trips—we want to do more stuff like that."

In the last 15 years minor-league baseball has turned itself into a family entertaining and marketing success.

"We're trying to get the major leagues to look at what we've done," Birling says. "They could learn a lot."

Major Programming in the Minors

Without question, the resounding No. 1 attraction at the minor leagues is—sorry, players!—not the whiz, bang, flash of the ball, bat and players, but the post-game fireworks shows. Hands down, fireworks are the top crowd pleaser, but after that, it's pretty much up for grabs. Among wild and crazy mascots, traveling acts like the Zooperstars "Sharky McGuire" or "Harry Canary" belting out the seventh-inning stretch of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," having fans wrestle it out in sumo suits or kids frenetically running the bases between innings, it's not easy narrowing it all down to just 10 favorites for the attractions Hall of Fame, but we'll take a swing at it.

  1. Post-game fireworks shows
  2. Mascots
  3. Concessions
  4. Games within the games: sumo wrestling, races, birthday recognitions and more
  5. Picnic areas
  6. Play areas: playgrounds, carousels and more
  7. Water-related activities: pools, hot tubs, water cannons
  8. Group areas: bars, decks, areas for large groups to gather
  9. Giveaways
  10. Traveling acts: concerts, comedy, magic acts, to name a few

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