Earlier this summer, Minor League Baseball announced its record-setting merchandise sales for 2017, with licensed goods surpassing $70.8 million for the first time in history. This milestone marked a 3.6 percent rise over 2016 sales, which hit record-setting levels as well.
The tremendous popularity of MiLB merchandise is certainly understandable, given many of the unique names and creative logos you come across when canvassing teams around the league.
As MiLB Chief Operating Officer Brian Earle noted, “Minor League Baseball team names and logos continue to be among the most popular in all of professional sports and our teams have made promoting their brand a priority.”
He attributed much of the league’s record-setting merchandise sales success to the teams themselves, as they “have done a tremendous job of using their team marks and logos to build an identity that is appealing to fans not just locally, but in some cases, globally as well.”
If there’s one man qualified to speak about Minor League Baseball and its remarkably effective branding — which is what’s ultimately driving these record-setting merchandise sales — it would have to be Paul Caputo.
Not only is Caputo a regular contributor to the website SportsLogo.net, which covers a variety of leagues, teams, their logos, and branding, he’s also the author of an entire book devoted to sharing the stories surrounding the compelling identities of these Minor League Baseball teams.
Entitled “The Story Behind the Nickname: The Origins of 100 Classic, Contemporary, and Wacky Minor League Baseball Team Names,” Caputo’s book is basically a compendium outlining the success and effectiveness of Minor League Baseball’s branding and marketing that continues to drive fan interest and merchandise sales.
With unique names, fun logos, and an emphasis on creativity, teams throughout MiLB have been lauded over the years for their originality. Many times, as Caputo mentioned, fandom and merchandise purchases have absolutely nothing to do with any sort of team, franchise, or even location allegiance.
“By its nature, Minor League Baseball is less about the product on the field and more about the brand and fan experience. People are more likely to buy something fun and interesting without regard to the team affiliation or location.”
On a personal level, Caputo noted he owns “a handful of Las Vegas 51s gear, which I bought when they were a Dodgers affiliate and kept when they became a Mets farm club — even though I live in Colorado and root for the big-league Phillies.”
Yet, interestingly, it turns out the majority of these names and identities aren’t just concocted out of thin air. When Caputo first became interested in MiLB names and logos, he couldn’t help but think many of them were simply designed to be outrageous. As it turns out, when he started looking into it, the curious logo-hound discovered that he was “pleasantly surprised that not only did they have significance, they have a very particular meaning specific to the local community.”
Proving just how carefully conceived MiLB team identities are, Caputo explained the origins of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, pointing out that “the steel mills of eastern Pennsylvania forged pig iron and a team with a gritty, metallic logo is perfect for the area.”
Not only did the Lehigh Valley IronPigs capitalize on a clever name and cool logo, they made sure it had meaning and was designed with intention to really “forge” an effective identity.
Turns out other teams like the Akron RubberDucks and Binghamton Rumble Ponies have some interesting, compelling stories behind their branding and identity as well. The RubberDucks play in an area where the tire industry is prominent; the Rumble Ponies play in the Carousel Capital of the World. As Caputo pointed out, “every new Minor League name means something to the local community. For that reason, I do find them more interesting than MLB team names and logos.”
Each team’s identity and brand is designed with a very specific, deeply-rooted intention. It’s that strategy that makes the branding so effective, and merchandise so compelling. MiLB team names and logos really tap into fan passion and enthusiasm. Caputo recognized Jason Klein of Brandiose and Dan Simon of Studio Simon as the designers behind many of the league’s coolest logos.
Now, MiLB branding and marketing was obviously particularly salient and effective this year, driving a whopping total of merchandise sales across the league. Brian Earle credited much of that to Minor League Baseball’s licensing partners, such as New Era Cap, 47 Brand, Bimm Ridder, Majestic, Original Retro Brand, Nike, and others. As he stated, they’ve “continued to support the MiLB’s growth through innovative designs and a high-quality product that meets consumer demand, and has provided MiLB with a vehicle for current and future growth.”
In addition to that, 2017 saw an influx of what Caputo termed the “Whacky Era,” where teams are adopting temporary brands with food-based nicknames or connections to some sort of cultural heritage. Those temporary identities, like the Fresno Tacos, Staten Island Pizza Rats, and Trenton Pork Rolls, lend themselves to the creation of additional lines of merchandise enabling fans to express themselves.
There has also been the Spanish-language Copa initiative that saw many teams temporarily rebrand with a more Hispanic identity, like the Durham Bulls becoming the “Toros,” and Albuquerque Isotopes the “Mariachis.” These temporary rebrands and promotional uniforms create an additional sales stream for MiLB merchandise.
Looking at the list of the Top 25 teams leading the way in sales published by MiLB, there are some interesting notes to point out.
- Six teams have made the list every year.
- They seem to have been able to capitalize on team history, nostalgia, and established brand passion.
- Eight teams made the 2017 list after not making it the previous year; many of which include rebrands like the creation of the Hartford Yard Goats and the Jacksonville Suns becoming the Jumbo Shrimp.
- Four major league teams had two affiliates reach the Top 25. No word yet on whether or not that success has any carryover to the minor league farm system.
Below is the list in its entirety in alphabetical order, as MiLB does not provide order by rankings:
Top 25 MiLB Merchandise Sales
Albuquerque Isotopes (Rockies, Triple-A)
Buffalo Bisons (Blue Jays, Triple-A)
Charlotte Knights (White Sox, Triple-A)
Columbia Fireflies (Mets, Single-A)
Columbus Clippers (Indians, Triple-A)
Durham Bulls (Rays, Triple-A)
El Paso Chihuahuas (Padres, Triple-A)
Fort Wayne TinCaps (Padres, Single-A)
Frisco RoughRiders (Rangers, Double-A)
Hartford Yard Goats (Rockies, Double-A)
Indianapolis Indians (Pirates, Triple-A)
Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Marlins, Double-A)
Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Phillies, Triple-A)
Nashville Sounds (Athletics, Triple-A)
New Orleans Baby Cakes (Marlins, Triple-A)
Omaha Storm Chasers (Royals, Triple-A)
Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox, Double-A)
Reading Fightin Phils (Phillies, Double-A)
Rochester Red Wings (Twins, Triple-A)
Sacramento River Cats (Giants, Triple-A)
Salt Lake Bees (Angels, Triple-A)
South Bend Cubs (Single-A)
Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners, Triple-A)
Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers, Triple-A)
Trenton Thunder (Yankees, Double-A)