With constant external concern over professional baseball’s lack of fan diversity and dry nature, Minor League Baseball has found success celebrating its multiculturalism and its unique theme nights, which is now trickling down to its merchandise sales.
During the 2018 season, MiLB registered record-setting merchandise sales statistics among its 25-highest performing teams. During that stretch, MiLB posted over $73 million in retail sales — a 4.2% increase year-over-year. Since the 2011 season, MiLB has improved its merchandise sales numbers by over $20 million – growing over 41% during that stretch.
Its top-25 list featured teams such as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (AAA-Phillies) and the Columbia Fireflies (A-Mets), which is reflective of MiLB teams’ and their ability to adjust to this ever-changing sports market through local engagement.
“I think there’s tactics that you can certainly borrow in, and in minor league baseball, you certainly have to tailor it to your own community,” said Brian Earle, MiLB’s head of licensing and consumer products. “One of the areas that [MiLB] excels at is connecting with the community and support in those community initiatives.”
One of MiLB’s biggest successes has been with the “Copa de la Diversión,” or “Fun Cup,” which started in 2018 with 33 teams paying homage to Hispanic culture.
One year later, after dramatic increases for the series in attendance, merchandise sales and commercial partnership revenue, the Copa Cup was grown to 72 teams in 2019. With names such as the Mariachis de Nuevo México and the Flying Chanclas de San Antonio, MiLB wants the fans to see the Copa Cup as genuine and not as an unoriginal money-grab.
“[The MiLB marketing group] really wanted to make sure [the Copa Cup] was authentic in the way that it happened,” said Earle. “Part of that authenticity was creating these unique names and identities and then integrating that to on-field. When that obviously had translated out beyond on-field use,the popularity of some of those marks really drove some of that retail growth.”
Diversity is not the MiLB’s only effort at increasing merchandise sales. As director of merchandise for the IronPigs, Mike Luciano’s job is to create activities as innovative as his team’s name.
One instance of MiLB inventing something that MLB could never implement was in May 2018. While NBA megastar Lebron James was in free agency, Lehigh Valley launched a billboard advertisement shooting its shot at landing the former Cleveland Cavalier.
Including the goat was enjoyed not only by spectators, but also by MiLB. During the offseason, the IronPigs won a pair of “Golden Bobbleheads” during MiLB’s Promotional Seminar: “Best Digital Campaign or Activation” and “Best Overall Promotion” for #LVWantsLeBron.
Behind the #LVWantsLebron campaign, it all culminated in a LeBron-themed night on June 28, 2018. While James ultimately chose the Los Angeles Lakers as his team, fans were still entertained when the organization brought an actual goat to the game.
After its highly successful #LVWantsLeBron initiative, the team landed back on the Top 25 merchandise list after not making it in 2017. With his staff on track for a 25% increase in sales year-over-year, Luciano attributes their recent improvements to the creative freedom they possess – and how enjoyable the process can be.
“I think it’s really important that we try to reinvent ourselves every year,” said Luciano. “You don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. If you keep doing what you do, you’re going to keep getting the same results. But we don’t want the same results we want to do – even more so, we want to embrace the fun that is Minor League Baseball.”
Another team which has achieved success through unconventional taste is the Columbia Fireflies. Based in Columbia, South Carolina, team merchandise manager Alex Watson noticed an emerging trend of pastel colors and monochromatic designs.
Given Columbia’s temperate climate, Watson and her staff began making lighter clothing such as tank tops, tee-shirts, and shorts to sell to visitors. According to Watson, these items, designed by vendors ranging from New Era – an official MiLB licensor – to Bimm Ridder, have been selling very well for the Fireflies.
When thinking of new merchandise ideas, Watson also never lets the team name go unnoticed. With the Fireflies name originating from an article by Columbia-based newspaper The State, portions of the team uniform glows in the dark.
“What we’re constantly working on is trying to have new ideas and new things here in the store,” said Watson.” [We make] sure we’re on top of trends and keeping up with what people are buying and really taking a look at our numbers post-season to keep up for next season.”
Watson added, “That’s just that the basis of our job as merchandise managers -to keep selling as much as we can. We try to keep more and more neon stuff and more stuff that glows in the dark every year and people really seem to like that. That’s what we hope to keep doing -to stay on the [MiLB merchandise sales list] as long as we can.”
With the AAA National Championship game on Sep. 17 marking the end of the 2019 MiLB season, teams are making a last-minute push to finish with high sales figures. Making money is important but, according to Luciano, nothing matters more than the fan experience.
“Most times people will leave the game” said Luciano. “They don’t even know what the score is, but they know they had a really great time, they had some great food, ticket prices are great. They just had a great time overall, [and] that’s really what we try to focus on.”