The Yankees give out Derek Jeter bobblehead dolls to people entering Yankee Stadium while fans at Steelers games wave Terrible Towels handed out to them at the gate. Children at Thunder games mount tricycles and race one another across the court to win a Durant jersey and the Blackhawks choose a fan to shoot the puck between periods. Professional sports marketing departments have a pretty standard series of giveaways and in-game challenges to promote attendance and liven up the atmosphere. But go to a minor league basketball, hockey or baseball game – especially baseball – and you’ll see in-game marketing taken to a whole other level. Some of it is off-the-wall but there are a few ideas that sports marketers working for professional teams should take note of.
Definitely worth calling up to the big leagues…
The Red Sox minor league affiliate hosted the Yankees minor league team on We Hate the Yankees Night. The two South Carolina teams, already bitter rivals, played the game while fans watched highlights of historic Red Sox-Yankee duels on the big screen between innings. The Red Sox minor league team also flew in big league mascot, Wally the Green Monster, and announcers asked fans trivia on the historic rivalry. If this can work for minor league rivals, why not rile up fans more at the pro level? Imagine Carmelo Anthony stepping up to the free throw line in Brooklyn while the Nets media crew plays clips of his post season failures on the JumboTron. Some marketing departments promote their sports rivalries appropriately but others need to minimize the fans’ bitterness even more.
At Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction, he took time to insult everyone from former Bulls GM, Jerry Krause to Byron Russell, the ex-Jazz forward he embarrassed in the 1998 NBA Finals. The Utah Flash of the NBDL hosted a one-on-one grudge match, eventually dubbed Michael Jordan Impostor Night, between Jordan and Russell. Russell challenged Jordan to the charity game of one-on-one but number 23 never responded so Flash owner, Brandt Anderson hired a Jordan look-alike for the match. A team sanctioned one-on-one game between active top flight stars on an off-day would draw mass interest and raise a lot of charity money.
The Arkansas Travelers baseball team of the Texas League once gave away Loek Van Mil growth charts in recognition of their 7-foot-1 pitcher, Ludovicus Jacobus Maria Van Mil. New York Mets pitcher, Jon Rauch stands 6’11’’ and is the tallest active player in Major League Baseball. Passing out growth charts with a life sized picture of his lengthy frame would be a unique Citi Field giveaway.
The Silver Hawks of South Bend, Indiana hosted a Halfway-to Halloween Night where kids received goody bags at the gate, fans in costumes scored discounted tickets and the best costume won a prize. Though it isn’t a wacky promotion, getting fans to wear costumes to the ballpark in mid-May makes ‘people watching’ even more interesting and will help fill seats that may otherwise remain empty.
The Fort Meyers Miracle baseball team hosts an annual Special Needs Baseball Game that professional sports teams in all leagues should quickly adopt. The day long baseball camp pairs Miracle players and coaches with disabled children. While all major sports leagues organize off-day community outreach events, teams should consider taking a page from the Miracle playbook. Get players and coaches to the stadium in the morning for a shoot around or game of catch with special needs kids, giving the team good publicity and, more importantly, raising the spirits of children that get to interact with the team and stay to watch the game.
The Daytona Cubs celebrated a fan’s passion for his team by hosting Front Row Joe Night. In the spirit of a fan that was attending his one-thousandth consecutive game – a streak that started in 1995 – the marketing department asked the team to wear their 1995 jerseys and they even had concession prices from that year. If a minor league team can recognize the importance of fan loyalty, all professional organizations can do the same. Teams should take a look at season ticket data, find the family who’s held them the longest and host them in a suite for a night. While it’s impossible to track if a specific person used their ticket for every single game, promotions departments can host a night themed around the year their longest standing season ticket holder first got tickets. Just like in Daytona, throwback jerseys could be worn with concession prices being rolled back to that year in history.
A stretch but just might work…
The Class A Miracle of Fort Meyers hosted Costanza Night in 2003, paying homage to a well-known episode of “Seinfeld” where George Costanza does the opposite of every instinct he has and, miraculously, lands New York Yankees job. The scoreboard that evening ran from the ninth inning to the first, the team actually paid fans to show up and those with the worst tickets were given box seats. The home team wore road jerseys and, after the game, players approached fans for autographs. There are many reasons why this wouldn’t fly in a major league ballpark. Organizations would never pay fans to show up and some athletes are too self-important to play along with the marketing ploy. But seeing the scoreboard run backwards and the team wearing the wrong jerseys would be a fun twist. And it would be a fitting event for the Yankees to put on considering Costanza’s place of employment.
A Fan Batting Practice Night was hosted by the Iowa Cubs which let ticket-bearing fans take five swings on the field before the team played the Omaha Royals. A chance to step on a major league field or participate in shoot around with professional basketball players would get any fan out for a game. And while it’s impossible to have 40,000 fans cycle through a batting cage, a team could institute a “first 100 people” promotion to bring some fans closer to the field.
One of the most famous minor league promotional stunts in history was dubbed Awful Night by the Altoona Curve. An annual event which started in 2003 brings all things bad to the baseball stadium. Vendors use bottomless cups and sporks at the concessions where spam sandwiches are served. Bad Marilyn Monroe renditions and hot coffee chugging contests fill time between innings and David Hasselhoff music videos play on the JumboTron. Only last place teams with high-character players should even attempt this promotion as it pokes fun at their on-the-field struggles. Minor league teams often utilize self-deprecating humor to bring fans and teams closer together whereas professional teams often hold tight that separation between a fan and his team. This one may not translate well at the next level.
If Theo Epstein were ever looking to mix sports and politics, he should take a page from the Las Vegas Wranglers hockey team and host former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich Prison Jersey Night. The Cubs could honor one of their most infamous fans by copying the Wranglers and wearing gray and black prison striped jerseys for the night. They’ll have to convince the opposing team to wear contrasting orange prison jump suits like the Bakersfield Condors did for the game. The referees even got into the act that night, putting on blue prison guard uniforms. Likely, Major League Baseball would never approve of such a stunt but, if they did, the Cubs should schedule it for a cold April night game because even the most fickle fan would bundle up and buy a ticket to see the spectacle.
Don’t even think about it…
This one has lawsuit written all over it. The St. Paul Saints auctioned off an at-bat on eBay; 35-year-old Marc Turndorf submitted the winning bid of $5,601. In 2004, Turndorf made his plate appearance in the bottom of the eighth and popped out to the catcher. It was a dream come true for him and great publicity for the Saints. Letting a fan step onto the field of play during a game should and would not ever happen in the pros. Can you imagine handing the winning bidder a bat and tell him to take a few swings against Cole Hamels? Hamels might just plunk him in the back like he did to rookie phenom Bryce Harper in his their first encounter. Though nice in theory, this one will remain a minor league gimmick.
Minor league teams sure love Seinfeld. This promotion on No Soup for You Night featured an appearance by Larry “The Soup Nazi” Thomas. He autographed team-logo ladles that were given out to fans and even served up soup to people, if they asked nicely. While it may fit well as a Yankee Stadium promotion, it may be time to let the Soup Nazi retire. But the idea behind it is still a good one. There are plenty of current TV shows or characters of interest. The Raiders could host a Big Bang Theory Night with actor Kunal Nayyar who plays Raj Koothrappali. Burgers and sodas would cost $3.14 and the Black Hole can be filled with physicists, not men in face paint and spiked helmets.
The Fresno Grizzlies baseball team hosts an annual Tweet event for fans that use the popular social media network. Tweeting fans received discounted tickets and concessions and could participate in contests with other tweeters. Leave this one in Fresno please. It’s already annoying to walk around a basketball, football or baseball game and see everyone staring down at their smart phones. Instead of a Tweet event, teams should give a prize to the guy who got beaned by a foul ball because he was texting his friend instead of paying attention to the game.
The Brevard County Manatees opened their gates at 6:00 AM for World Record First Pitch Attempt Day. Fans were invited to stand in line and each throw one ceremonial first pitch in an attempt to break the record of 5,906 first pitches in one pre-game. Manatee fans fell short of the record and, since people showed up 13 hours early, many were not in the mood to sit through a three hour baseball game played on a beat up field. If they did this at US Cellular Field, famed groundskeeper Roger Bossard might just put in his two weeks’ notice.