Today, arguably the most effective branding in the world is coming out of small towns across America. We’re talking about those places like Binghamton, the Quad Cities, and other hubs of minor league baseball. The league of maybe-someday big leaguers is giving an experience a name. Its kooky marketing ways are branding “fun” in ways that any company–selling anything, even something as objectionably boring as minor league baseball–can use.
First, though, it’s important to understand the legacy of minor league baseball as a business. Historically, MiLB, as the stat nerds taking over baseball call it, was, on its surface, a lousy business model. Minor league teams didn’t really make money. They were money sinks. They were a place to develop talent. A big-league team like the New York Mets would own a minor league team such as the Binghamton Mets as an investment. Players in the minors today may be useful in making the team real money as a major leaguer down the road. Not anymore.
Yes, MiLB is still an investment, in the sense that professional teams develop young talent at the minor league level, but turning a profit in a place like Binghamton is much more important these days. The Binghamton Mets don’t exist anymore. But the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, a minor league affiliate for the Mets, do. They’re the same team, but they’re in the early stages of a marketing experiment, and they’re your teacher for the first of three lessons on how you can market, well, just about anything–even if you’re strapped for cash and talent and looking to bring some buzz to Binghamton.
Lesson 1: Create an experience (not just a product)
The Binghamton Mets were sold to a new owner in 2016, and the owner, according to Eddie Saunders, director of marketing and promotions at the Rumble Ponies, saw a real lack of enthusiasm in the community. He did see people wearing the gear, but businesses in the community didn’t have signs up in their windows. This was a problem.
The team consulted with a rebranding company, Brandios, and developed an idea to get the community involved right from the start: Rename the team! The fan-generated team names boiled down to six options: the Bullheads, the Gobblers, the Stud Muffins, the Timber Jockeys, the Rocking Horses, and the Rumble Ponies. The last two pay homage to the city’s historical production of carousel horses. Inarguably, this is a more fun legacy to play up than other industrial naming possibilities, like, say, the Big Blues (IBM has played a large role in the area).
Even with this approach of letting fans have a voice, not every voice was one of support. “There were a lot of traditionalists here who said, ‘Hey, the Binghamton Mets have been here 25 years. Why mess with it?’” Saunders says. But the franchise still went through with it, and let’s just say Rumble Pony fever has hit this northern New York hamlet.
Last year, the Eastern League, the league the Ponies play in, had 15 rainouts, a record. Even with all those missed opportunities for ticket sales, the Rumble Ponies set a 10-year attendance high.
Saunders and his colleagues know the work is far from over. “Now we have to continue to build the brand,” he says. And with the new name, the Rumble Ponies’ story is about more than baseball: It’s fun for the whole town.
Lesson 2: Make that experience one of a kind
Some people get excited when a team’s playing schedule is released. But for the Charleston RiverDogs, the real excitement comes when they release their promotional schedule. Over the years, it has included such themes as “Prostate Cancer Awareness Night,” where all male fans could get free prostate exams (via a pin prick). Or the time the franchise turned their ballpark into a waterpark for “Big Splash Day.” All this leads to a natural question: What’s the connection to baseball? Nothing, and that’s the whole point. The goal is for there to never be a dull moment in a slow-paced game.
“We want to create enough of a buzz that our stands will be filled with not just locals but those coming to town,” says assistant general manager Ben Abzug. “We target the homestands and try to get one promo per month that will get national attention.”
Despite the team’s average record over the past five years–the RiverDogs have lost about as many games as they’ve won–annual home attendance has increased from 254,000 to 305,000, a 20 percent uptick.
Creating national attention isn’t easy, though, and trying to outdo oneself for absurdity is a challenge unto itself. Think we’re kidding? There was once an idea to drop a baby grand piano out of a helicopter onto the field. The groundskeeping crew mercilessly nixed that plan and gave us all a red line to draw on what constitutes going too far in the world of harebrained branding boondoggles.
Lesson 3: Brand the experience (not just the team)
You’ve heard of Sunday Funday? For some, it’s a boozy afternoon to close out the weekend, but to the Richmond Flying Squirrels, it is now part of their identity. “Funnville is a philosophy of who the Flying Squirrels are,” says Jay Burnham, the team’s director of media, broadcasting, and marketing. “This all sort of started with the Lehigh IronPigs, which have become Bacon, USA. It gives the entire experience a name.”
Just as with the Rumble Ponies, when the Flying Squirrels started their process, half the community hated it and half the community was onboard. But as the team won people over, they were able to slowly sell Funnville (And, yep, it’s spelled with two “n’s.”) This means that on Sundays, the team forgoes its standard uniforms and wears ones lettered with “Funnville.” Don’t get us started on the game-day slogan, “Have Funn, Go Nuts!”
Have the Flying Squirrels taken it too far? “We’ve definitely gotten away from the baseball part of it and are now focused on the experience,” said Burnham. “We are here to sell a good time. The pendulum may swing back one day.”
Be it painting the upper decks crazy colors, doing a “Bobble Mustache Night” for onetime native Edgar Allan Poe, or having baseball legend “Crime Dog” Fred McGriff carry a lucky rabbit’s foot to the pitching mound on Friday the 13th, Richmond residents are getting what they expect. “We don’t have anyone asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’” says Burnham. “It’s easier now that it’s Funnville.”