The Pawtucket Red Sox made national news a few weeks ago with the announcement of the return of their “Evil Empire Weekend” rivalry series against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders this past weekend. (For those unfamiliar, the PawSox and RailRiders are the Red Sox and Yankees Triple-A teams). The weekend-centered around the Red Sox good-natured animosity toward the RailRiders and Yankees franchise- was one of the more creative, unique promotions that even this New York fan can’t help but tip his cap to and enjoy.
The weekend was conceived after a rather heated series between the Yankees and Red Sox MLB teams earlier in April that basically deteriorated to a boxing match on the field. Yankee first baseman Tyler Austin slid into second base hard; Boston felt it was “dirty;” Sox reliever Joe Kelly beaned him, and the baseball brouhaha ensued.
Pawtucket cleverly decided that during their first series hosting the Yankees Minor League Team, they’d celebrate (or denigrate?) the hostility between the two franchises with a rather unique take on “Evil Empire Weekend.”
In addition to the typical “heroes vs villains” framing of the series, the PawSox announced that any fans named “Joe” or “Kelly” would be admitted to McCoy Stadium for free; “Tyler’s” and “Austin’s” would be banned from the game; and those identifying as “Aaron, Gary, Aroldis, CC, Jacoby, Masahiro, or Giancarlo” would have to pay double to see the action on the field.
The weekend also featured an opportunity for “PawSox fans to test their Kellyesque accuracy…with a pitiable Yankee fan appearing in a dunk tank for fans of all ages to submerge,” and a costume contest offering a pair of free 2018 season tickets to the fan dressed in the best “anti-Yankee” garb.
Announced on April 19th, the “Evil Empire Rivalry” promotion caught the attention of fans “around the galaxy” because it was not simply a pre-planned, canned idea. Joe Bradlee, the Director of Communications & Community Relations for the PawSox, mentioned that while the “rivalry” idea had been in the works for a while, “most of what’s generated all the publicity really grew organically,” based on the current event tie-ins.
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Bradlee mentioned that he and the marketing department are always focused on doing things that are topical and timely. “We announced this specific Evil Empire promo when we did because the Red Sox vs Yankees brawl was still fresh in people’s minds.” It’s a perfect example of the real “scheduling serendipity,” that Minor League Baseball teams are especially positioned to take advantage of.
With experience at the Red Sox Major League club, Bradlee actually made the jump back to Pawtucket because he realized, “here in MiLB there aren’t as many rules…it’s much less rigid, and we have more freedom to get creative.” The reason this and many other PawSox promos have taken off and been as successful as they have is precisely because of that agility afforded to the marketing department. “Timing really resonated…we’re able to lean in to fresh news to create an experience that’s relevant and all in good fun,” Bradlee said.
Special promotions like this obviously can’t be planned; after all, how were the PawSox to know that Joe Kelly and Tyler Austin would instigate a brawl? The “Evil Empire Rivalry Weekend,” was actually all put together in just under 48 hours. For Bradlee and his team, the key is “being able to adapt,” and generate creative content on the fly. “That’s what resonates…the strength behind these initiatives is that they get put together organically.”
Those “other initiatives” Bradlee mentioned include a “Free Tom Brady Night,” a “Kyrie Irving Trade Day,” and others that were all developed almost instantly, allowing Pawtucket to leverage the news of the moment. The Evil Empire Weekend and all the other fun, topical promotions are specifically aimed at bringing new people to the ballpark, offering “new ways to get new people to McCoy Stadium” and growing the fan-base by showing that the real emphasis is on FUN.
Clever activations like this are a particularly effective strategy because they generate buzz on Twitter, frequently get mentioned by the big-league players, and make the games more engaging and accessible to a crowd that might not otherwise gravitate toward attending Minor League Baseball. As long as your name’s not “Tyler” or “Austin…”