Baseball is an increasingly metrics-driven sport. It’s always been about numbers on the field, but as contracts with players and media partners increase, the exposure fans get to the business side of the game continues to increase.
While some outlets talked about the television ratings being down for the World Series this year, business is pretty good for baseball. In context, FOX Sports reported strong numbers for the World Series across their various platforms. Merchandise sales continues to be strong around the game.
Not many professional sports are experiencing the financial success that Minor League Baseball has over the past couple years, and 2018 is proving to be a banner year across their various levels and associations.
Thanks to an authentic approach to embracing a diverse audience and the communities in which teams reside, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) is becoming a model for engagement in baseball and beyond.
A Big Step
Embracing Latino fans is an area in which sports at every level can improve. Data continues to tell us that Latino baseball fans are passionate, and that the audience continues to be increasingly strong. For example, FOX Deportes’ viewership for Game 5 of the World Series was up 16 percent from last year’s Game 5, and was the second-highest rated game since the Astros won Game 7 against the Dodgers last year.
But that’s at the major league level.
After strong success with a four-team trial in 2017, MiLB went all-in this year with embracing their Latino fans through the Copa de la Diversión. During the 33-team, season-long initiative, teams took on alter-egos and changed their jerseys, caps, food options, in-stadium music and other parts of the fan experience.
“There is so much alignment between what Minor League Baseball represents where the baseball is not the most important thing,” said Kurt Hunzeker, vice president of marketing strategy and research at MiLB. “The game itself is more in the background. It’s more of the family. It’s the fun. It’s the food. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the experience.”
As we detailed in March when the new logos were announced, the Copa de la Diversión was much deeper than an on-field competition. In order to win the Copa trophy teams needed to reflect the demographics of their communities.
For example, some organizations found a need to hire bilingual employees in their ticket sales departments. Others changed their internship programs to attract more diverse applicants as well.
“For some teams, it was looking yourself in the mirror and being like, ‘Man we don’t have enough people on our staff that looks like our community,’” Hunzeker said. “I think that was a huge benefit.”
Another requirement was to either create or deepen relationships with community organizations serving the local Latino market. From Latino chambers of commerce to school and church groups, team executives and players were out in the community with the fans.
“[We] connected into some of the members of the Oklahoma City public schools,” said Michael Byrnes, president and general manager the Oklahoma City Dodgers, the Class AAA affiliate of the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers. “They have such a high percentage of Latino students, so just hearing what their needs are and what some of the tools are that we can provide to help motivate some of those students, whether it’s their literacy programs or through our STEM outreach and just some of those types of things. It opened up a direct dialogue with some of the members of their administration.”
A Big Year
According to Hunzeker, MiLB had a merchandise goal of $533,000 across the 33 participating teams. The year-to-date revenues generated just from the merchandise is over $3.7 million. Teams also saw an attendance increase of 12.5 percent against the same dates the previous year.
“The retail was the other eye opener,” Hunzeker told La Vida Baseball. “The clubs all submitted in the business plan before the season started. … Prove to me that you have a plan with the understanding that you may blow up that plan once you learn more. But don’t just go through the motions, don’t just check a box. Show me you’re committed to this and show me what you’re going do to your front office to better reflect your community.”
Hunzeker pointed to five specific organizations that enjoyed the most noticeable success: Albuquerque, San Antonio, San Bernardino, Corpus Christi, and Hartford.
Albuquerque, which rebranded into the Mariachis, and San Antonio, which became the Flying Chanclas, blew away the expectations of their own leaders and Hunzeker. According to Hunzeker, both teams had bigger sales – more than $700,000 each – at their own team stores (on-site and online) than the gross MiLB goal at the beginning of the program. He also said Albuquerque’s average attendance gain per game was 5,227, while San Antonio’s was 2,013.
At the local team level, the buy-in varied from team to team. Hunzeker was pleased with how all 33 teams bought-in to the Copa in 2018. He acknowledged that some teams started the process with an approach that opened the door for more opportunities for success.
“We thought it was a good first year,” Byrnes told La Vida Baseball. “I think we learned a lot about ourselves, just who our brand is, throughout that process and just how our community members are viewing us.
“We felt like anecdotally throughout the season, all 70 games, that we were seeing a more diverse crowd overall.”
Byrnes and the leadership of the Dodgers engaged community groups during the planning for the 2018 season. The feedback they received from these informal group meetings informed their decisions regarding logos, color choices for the new logos and uniforms, and when the special Copa games should be played.
OKC played all eight of their games on weekends.
Not every team played Copa-specific games on weekends. Hunzeker noted that some teams identified specific nights during the week to hold their Copa games, and that success varied with each team and market.
Continuing to Grow
MiLB is expanding the Copa to include 72 organizations in 2019. Hunzeker said there are 13 more organizations already lined up to join the Copa in 2020 that are beginning to form relationships with community groups to build engagement before diving into the Copa.
According to Hunzeker, the 72 teams participating in the Copa in 2019 have already hired more than 100 new employees as a direct result of the demographic data used to develop their business plans for the Copa.
“The goal of all this was to better reflect their community, and everything else will follow,” he said. “The teams that did it changed a lot of things up and in the process had a whole lot of fun doing it.”
Featured Image: Mariachis NM Instagram