In a spring and summer filled with the Olympics, presidential conventions, Pokémon Go, Brett Favre's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, LeBron James leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA title and the return of Guns N' Roses, it takes some marketing moxie to stand out from the crowd.
Welcome to the world of Minor League Baseball, founded in 1901, home to 19 leagues nationwide and in Mexico, including 160 teams — which attracted some 42.5 million fans last year — with such robust names as the Toledo Mud Hens, Las Vegas 51s, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, El Paso Chihuahuas, Albuquerque Isotopes, Sugar Land Skeeters and Durham Bulls.
"Minor League Baseball team names and logos are quirky, fun and contemporary, but they are also incredible marketing tools for the clubs they represent," said Sandie Hebert, MiLB's director of licensing,
The combined retail sales of all 160 teams set a MilB record in 2015, topping $65.1 million, a 7.9% increase over 2014's $60.3 million, which had been the highest total recorded since MiLB's licensing program began in 1992.
Some of that had to do with out-of-market awareness among fans and consumers, with MiLB online sales up 9.4% over the previous year.
This year, MiLB, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla., signed as national advertisers Esurance and John Deere, joining a roster that also includes E&J Gallo's Barefoot Wine, Uncle Rays (official potato ship), OnDeck Capital and SunRun home solar energy systems.
New deals are in the works for the 2017 season and beyond, according to David Wright, who joined MiLB as chief marketing and commercial officer in January following a decade in executive positions for Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, most recently as senior vice president, global sponsorship.
"The local communities and owners in MiLB have done a tremendous job for generations of building these businesses and driving the relevance," said Wright. "Now it’s up to us in the MiLB office, and ultimately why I was hired, to aggregate that, to wrap our arms around the massive scale to tell a great story. That's what we are in the process of doing."
Getting young players ready for the Majors — or hosting short rehab stints for MLB players — are prime objectives for MiLB, which since 1965 has been home to all but 21 players who have spent time in MLB, according to Wright. But it's also about the promotions, many of which are as creative as they are eccentric.
Among this season's promotions:
• El Paso (Texas) Chihuahuas celebrated the 10th anniversary of Pluto becoming a dwarf planet.
• Stockton (Calif.) Ports had an “Asparagus Night,” complete with asparagus-green jerseys adorned with pictures of asparagus and asparagus at concession stands.
• “CATurday” was hosted by the Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws, with cat-pictured jerseys, a rendition of "Take MEOW To The Ball Game" and an invitation for fans to bring their cats to the game.
• Fresno (Calif.) Grizzlies had a "Three Amigos Night" based on the 1986 movie with Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase to honor the 30th anniversary of the film's release.
In conjunction with Nickelodeon, the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Cyclones celebrated the 25th anniversary of the "Ren & Stimpy" cartoon show, complete with bobble heads and Ren and Stimpy jerseys.
• Albuquerque (N.M.) Isotopes had a "Better Call Saul Night," based on the AMC show that takes place in that city, featuring jerseys depicting the image of Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk).
• The Maryland Bowie (pronounced Boo-ee) Baysox changed their name to the David Bowie Baysox for a tribute night with Bowie-themed jerseys and music. The team previously held a “Back Hair Appreciation Night,” where men volunteered to have their chest and back hair removed with hot wax.
"MiLB clubs have been setting the stage and been on the cusp of creativity for generations," said Wright. "On a national perspective, that's a model for us to follow. One of our points of differentiation is, from a national perspective, our ability to think creatively outside the box, to do things differently, which, quite frankly, other properties can't do.
"You will see us roll some things out which speak to that creativeness. As the commercial space becomes more sophisticated, we are going to be challenged from a macro perspective to think outside the box and to be creative to justify the investment that brands are expected to make.
"That's a big area of opportunity," said Wright, "and one that we will take advantage of as we move forward."