Where Sponsors Get Creative: The Minor Leagues
The Fort Meyers Miracle, a Minor League Baseball (MiLB) team and Minnesota Twins affiliate, are in the middle of a home game. Upon first glance, it may seem like a normal minor league baseball game. However, this is “opposite night” at the ballpark; the game started in the ninth inning and culminated in the first. Fans were paid money upon entering the park. The male and female restrooms were switched. While the MiLB and other minor leagues offer fans a chance to see up and coming players before they make the professionals, it is also home to highly unusual and creative sponsor and property programming rarely seen in the big leagues.
Whether it is team or league promotions or sponsor activations, the minor leagues provide a refreshing and innovative platform for a variety of activations. Corporate sponsors of professional sports bring many of the tried and true tactics to market each season. However, brands big and small, have used minor league sports as an opportunity to build their brand through non-traditional programming.
Why Sponsors and Properties Get Creative at the Minor League Level:
How has the minor leagues become known as an environment welcoming to new activations? MKTG breaks down factors that can contribute to the promotional culture of the minor leagues.
A Focus on Brand Awareness- Minor league teams must compete with the Major League team to draw fans and without top talent to market, the minor leagues must be innovative. There are a number of ways that can be done, but one way would be to create a unique promotion that will drive fans to show interest in the on-field/ice/court product. While Tier-1 properties and sponsors with higher levels of awareness go to market more traditionally, lower-tier properties and brands often resort to PR-driven tactics to gain a spike in awareness.
Lower Budget- In the minor leagues, properties and sponsors may be working with a lower activation budget. To create a truly memorable activation with a smaller budget, creativity is required. The Ohio Lottery ran an “Are You Smarter Than an Umpire?” where fans tested their sports IQ against the actual game umpires. This activation can be done on a limited budget, but due to its unique nature of including umpires, the activation immediately stands out.
Less Restrictions- With pro leagues there is a tendency to be more protective on team brands. Historic franchises like the Montreal Canadiens or the New York Yankees would be less inclined to work with a sponsor interested in activating in an outlandish way which could affect their image. However minor league teams do not maintain the same prestige as pro teams, as it is very common for a team to undergo a complete re-brands. MiLB team, the New Britain Rock Cats recently underwent a name change to the Hartford Yard Goats and completely abandoned their former identity. As a result of this detachment to a team's brand, the approach to their marketing and promotions come with a willingness to experiment and think outside the box.
The minor leagues have seen distinct promotions led by both the property and the sponsor. The following are a few notable examples of minor league promotions and activations.
Silent Night- In an attempt to set the record for the “quietest game ever” the Charelston Riverdogs encouraged fans not to talk for the first five innings of the game. Several fans duct taped their mouth and brought signs to signal to the beer vendor. To truly commit to the night, ushers were replaced by librarians and golf “Quiet Please” signs lined the field. This property driven promotion truly proved to brands the length a team will go to create a unique promotion.
Nickelodeon and MiLB- This year the MiLB and children’s cartoon network Nickelodeon, agreed to a partnership, which included ten Nickelodeon themed nights throughout minor league ballparks. A select number of teams will wear special jerseys in the style of popular 1990’s cartoons like Rugrats. This move can appeal to a millennial demographic who grew up watching Nickelodeon cartoons and who are a vital draw for any property.
DeVry University and MiLB- Known for its online classes, DeVry University has an enrolment of over 60,000 students throughout North America. In 2014 DeVry signed a three-year sponsorship agreement making them the official education and career development partner of the MiLB. The partnership has DeVry making a variety of fulltime scholarships available to players, player’s spouses, employees, umpires, and alumni of the MiLB. With a high percentage of the Minor League players not making it to the Major Leagues, an education can be highly valuable.
Key Takeaways for Sponsors
Activating at minor league level can provide strategic benefits for corporate sponsors:
Entry Point into Sponsorship- Brands that understand the value of sponsorship but that may not have the budget to invest at the professional level can look to the minor league for lower-cost alternatives. While the exposure value may not be the same, the principles of sponsorship remain the same: a way to connect with consumers over their passions in a DVR-proof and non-competitive environment. Many top brands including Coca-Cola, Ford, Pepsi, and Walgreens maintain sponsorships with minor league teams.
Relevance in Tier-2 Markets- Brands may be targeting an alternative to the typical large markets that are home to pro teams. Instead of spending sponsorship dollars on one larger geographic market, brands can find entry points into multiple smaller markets. Within hockey, the Canadian Hockey League and American Hockey League can give brands a localized presence in B or C markets.
Testing Ground for Activations- A variety of sponsors hold sponsorships in both the minor leagues and the major leagues. For these brands, the minor leagues can be leveraged to pilot certain activation programs. QSR brand Chipotle has run a promotion with the minor league team, The Lake County Captains where fans had to assemble a giant fake burrito on field. Chipotle also has a sponsorship of the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants and could potentially use the same promotion during those games.
Brands looking to bring their sponsorship to life through new and innovative ways can look to minor league sports for inspiration. Fans that attend the minor leagues have come to expect that the promotions during the games and surrounding the sport are unlikely to appear at the major league level. While investing in this space may not be strategically aligned to all brands, all corporate sponsors can have learnings from an environment where conventional tactics are consistently challenged.