- Affiliated minor leagues have added more than a dozen new sponsors since 2016
- Ongoing alliance with ISM Connect is bringing smart displays to MiLB ballparks
- Copa de la Diversión campaign has heightened ties to Hispanic market
Minor League Baseball’s national sponsorship efforts, which began in earnest just a few seasons ago as a self-described “white space” in the North American sports sponsorship landscape, is now big-game hunting.
Flush from several seasons of steady growth picking up more than a dozen new corporate partners – in many cases regional brands looking for their own national presence – in categories such as snack foods, airlines, and power tools, baseball’s affiliated minors now have their sights set squarely on top-tier sponsorship sectors such as soft drinks, financial services, and telecommunications, as well as international opportunities.
“We believe we can play at some of the biggest levels in the market,” says David Wright, MiLB chief commercial and marketing officer to SportBusiness. “We have big ideas of where we want to go, and we are well positioned to get there. There’s been a level of education out in the market that we’ve had to go through. But now we’re getting past that and we’re hitting our stride.”
Such ambition, however, is still a rather unlikely story for a property obviously not at the top level competitively in their sport, but also one historically existing as a loose federation of locally-oriented clubs.
That prior inward focus, as well as the lack of a regular presence on national TV, for many years made it difficult for MiLB to construct a meaningful national sponsorship business. But change first began to foment in 2008 with the pooling of the 160 affiliated clubs’ digital rights to create the Baseball Internet Rights Co. (BIRCO) in partnership with MLB.
That development led to the live streaming of what is now most minor-league games, and more critically, advanced the “Power Of One” notion repeatedly championed by MiLB president Pat O’Conner and helped instruct local club owners on the untapped commercial opportunities existing beyond their individual markets to create new shared revenue.
That success gave way to the introduction of Project Brand, the formal name of MiLB’s national marketing and sales effort, in late 2012. But even with that expanded mindset, it wasn’t until Wright’s arrival to MiLB in early 2016 that corporate sales truly began to escalate.
A former senior executive with Major League Soccer and its commercial arm Soccer United Marketing (SUM), Wright landed deals with agricultural machinery giant John Deere and with Uncle Ray’s, a Detroit, Michigan-based, regionally focused potato chip brand within a matter of weeks of arriving to MiLB’s St. Petersburg, Florida, headquarters.
Prior to the MiLB deals, John Deere had been aligned with PGA Tour and Uncle Ray’s had dabbled in motorsports sponsorship. But neither brand had previously been active purchasers in the sports sponsorship market.
“We are competing against some very large brands in our category,” says Lori Rader, vice-president of sales and marketing for Uncle Ray’s, whose rival chip brands include giants such as Pepsico’s Frito-Lay and the Kellogg’s-owned Pringles. Uncle Ray’s chip bags around the US now feature the MiLB logo, and the deal last year was extended through 2021. “But our partnership with Minor League Baseball has allowed us to expand our geography and position ourselves in the marketplace as a family, value-based brand. It’s certainly worked well for us.”
Uncle Ray’s would go on to post double-digit percentage sales increases, far higher than the potato chip category overall, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. It would be the start of a flurry of dealmaking for MiLB that would also bring alignments with companies such as Allegiant Air, power tool maker Echo Inc., baked beans brand Bush’s, and security solutions provider Guardian Protection, among many others.
Financial terms have not been disclosed, but collectively the set of agreements has resulted in “very substantial revenue growth” for MiLB and its member clubs, Wright said.
Now, armed with advancing digital technology, a marked willingness to deviate from tradition in the name of new ideas, and the three-plus years of demonstrated success, MiLB is now seeking to move to a higher level in its corporate dealmaking.
“We now have a big opportunity to lean even more into the attributes that make us uniquely us,” Wright says.
A particular set of factors
Organized professional leagues exist at the minor league level of competition in many other US sports. The National Basketball Association in particular operates its own minor league, the G League, and is tightly linked the rest of their operations and is also quickly growing in stature.
But no other minor league property in the US holds the same kind of scale and historical roots as MiLB. Existing since 1901, the organization operates 160 teams in the United States and Canada, offering a level of geographic market reach unrivaled by any other American pro league, either in major or minor league competition.
Many of those teams exist in cities with fewer than 100,000 residents, and often much smaller than that, with a primary goal of helping groom prospects to be able to play at the MLB level. But collectively, MiLB combines to draw about 42 million people per year, far more than any American pro sports property except for Major League Baseball, with an organizational goal to raise that annual figure to 50 million by 2026.
A key element to that attendance draw, and MiLB’s brand image generally, is its heavy focus providing affordable family entertainment. The average cost for a family of four to attend a MiLB game with tickets, parking, and concessions is below $70, a fraction of prices charged in the US major leagues where a comparable family cost figure can easily surpass $200.
That relative affordability, along with a propensity for more extreme promotional campaigns and food offerings, has become a fundamental component of MiLB’s overall brand. The property has routinely topped various fan surveys as providing the best value and most family-friendly option in US sports.
“There are two constants in the marketplace,” Wright says. “Everybody has a Minor League Baseball story of some sort, whether it be the first game they attended, some type of personal connection, or something else. Everybody has a story. And everybody also has a positive impression of MiLB. That provides us an incredible foundation on which to build.”
MiLB has also sought over the past two years to make Hispanic audience outreach a core tenet of its operations. The organization last year introduced the Copa de la Diversión (Fun Cup), a Hispanic-themed element of its broader “It’s Fun to be a Fan” marketing campaign. The effort, expanded significantly for 2019, involves nearly half of MiLB clubs using temporary Hispanic-themed nicknames and visual identities for selected games that offer much more authenticity and local ties than simply placing a “Los” in front of their existing monikers.
The dedicated Copa games last year generated a 12.6-per-cent attendance jump compared to their calendar equivalents in 2017, and a 24-per-cent higher average attendance compared to non-Copa games in 2018. Robust merchandise sales around the Copa push also helped fuel MiLB to an organization record $73.9m in retail merchandise sales in 2018. And Echo Tools has since signed on to be the official outdoor power tool of the ongoing campaign.
“The inclusivity piece has been critical to who we are and where we’re going, and it’s a core value for us,” Wright says. “Our ballparks need to look like each of their communities.”
With traditional media distribution never going to be a primary element for MiLB, the organization is now seeking to invent new forms of content exposure for itself and its corporate partners.
MiLB last year aligned with ISM Connect in which the Pennsylvania-based venue technology company will spent at least $15m – likely much more – to develop and install a network of video display screens at participating team ballparks. Those screens, operating as a more nimble version of a fixed digital billboard, will include a series of interactive experiences, team content, digital marketing, and sponsor integrations.
Allegiant Air has signed as the title sponsor of the newly-created media network, which involves more than 300 smart displays this year at nearly 30 ballparks, with many more planned for subsequent seasons.
“Already, we’ve built the only smart network of fan engagement technology, developed and published captivating content, and added a new dimension to the fan experience,” says Kent Heyman, ISM Connect’s chief executive.
MiLB, meanwhile, is also working with Octagon, the global sports and entertainment agency, to develop an overarching media and content strategy that takes full advantage of ongoing US media trends that are showing rapid growth for over-the-top digital video delivery, social media, and mobile-based content. The engagement with Octagon, relative to MiLB’s history, represents a new push by the affiliated minors to create a long-term, systemic, and research-driven vision for itself.
“We’re trying to get a much better understanding of our entire portfolio and what our opportunities are,” Wright says. “The brands are pushing us to be better, which we welcome, and part of that is coming to market with a much more comprehensive and organized set of offerings.”
MiLB in the coming months also expects to seek out an increasing presence in the gambling space, similar to the fast-growing collection of official data partnerships and sponsorships struck by US major leagues since last year’s US Supreme Court ruling to allow US states to legalize sports wagering.
Pat O’Conner, on deck to remain MiLB president for a fourth term, says he remains keenly concerned about protecting minor league players, umpires and scorers from falling prey to game fixing, particularly given the lower pay scales that level. MiLB has leaned heavily on its MLB counterparts for webinar content and guidance helping to instruct its personnel on organization rules around gambling, most notably a blanket ban around betting on baseball.
But those issues will not stop MiLB from also seeking to commercialize certain components around legal sports wagering.
“I fully expect that we’ll do a data deal in this space,” O’Conner says.