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Making minor league baseball fun again: While We’re Waiting

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Last weekend, I watched the Netflix documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball. It profiles the independent short-season Single-A minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks, that broke all the rules during a fun-filled five-year stretch in the 1970s.

You see, Portland, Oregon, is a fairly large city for a Single-A team. But its Triple-A team had not been successful in the quirky metropolis and moved over to greener pastures in Spokane, Washington. Enter: Bing Russell, best known historically for his role on Bonanza and for being Kurt Russell’s father. Bing started up a new independent team in Portland, scouted and signed all the players himself, paid to join the short-season Northwest League, and started all types of new trends in “professional” sports.

When you watch the documentary, you’ll appreciate how much Bing undoubtedly changed the game and the sports fan experience. At that point, independent minor league baseball had died in the U.S. By creating an independent team within organized, affiliated minor league baseball, Russell shook up the system and followed nobody else’s rules. And as fans, it seems we’re taking for granted what minor league baseball should be all about.

During this offseason already, we’ve seen the introduction of (at least) five outrageous names in affiliated minor league baseball. As a quick reminder, affiliated minor league baseball broadly includes 160 teams in Triple-A, Double-A, High Single-A, Single-A and short-season Single-A. (There are also many more rookie-level teams as well). Here are those new re-brandings:

These outrageous names have predictably drawn the ire of the Twittersphere, which simultaneously wants to be unpredictable and name things “Boaty McBoatface,” yet also wants to have no fun at all and can’t agree on anything. A headline in Baseball America read “Nicknames Veer into TooMuchville,” and that was even before the Baby Cakes unveiling this past week.

One of the main companies behind all of these whacky names is Brandiose, a San Diego-based design firm that specializes in the sports industry. Over the last several years, Brandiose also developed the branding and logos for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Triple-A, Philadelphia), El Paso Chihuahuas (Triple-A, San Diego), Richmond Flying Squirrels (Double-A, San Francisco), Akron RubberDucks (Double-A, Cleveland) and more.

I posted a Q&A with Casey White, one of the company’s co-founder, over on the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center blog last year. Here’s one quote in particular that he shared about changing perceptions of quirky team names:

“There’s this perception that sports team names need to be vicious. That may be true for football, but not baseball. It all goes back to story, the story of the town and the story of Minor League Baseball. … Concerning the story of Minor League Baseball, that’s a two-fold story. One is the players’ story. These are young guys scrapping to make it to the bigs. And then, the fans’ story is more, ‘We threw a party and a baseball game broke out.’ So the name should be fun, not vicious.”

As I’ve shared before here on WFNY, I do some analytics-related consulting work for Ken Babby, who owns both the Akron and Jacksonville minor league teams. When Babby officially became the owner of the Jacksonville Suns after the 2015 season, local fans likely knew a rebrand was happening shortly thereafter. Babby’s quote of saying “It’s a gritty, tough, hardworking shrimp” even made it into Sports Illustrated last week.

The rebrands are not cheap. Teams have to hire a design firm and review drafts; replace legal documents, signage, stationary, business cards, player uniforms, the entire team shop and more; and they have to spend additional funds on community marketing to inform the masses. In the world of minor league baseball, owners aren’t typically flush with cash where this kind of upfront investment is always possible.

In the case of New Orleans, Binghamton and Jacksonville, there was an alarming trend of a less-than-desirable product in those communities. The Zephyrs ranked 13th, 14th, 13th and 12th in attendance in the 16-team Pacific Coast League over the past four years. Binghamton routinely ranks at the bottom of the Eastern League. And Jacksonville, like New Orleans, is a major league market with the potential to be a shining star in its league.

Ultimately, this what minor league baseball should be all about. The lesson was learned from the Portland Mavericks. When you’re attending a major league game, you’re expecting a certain cachet of professionalism and upstanding behavior. In the minors – no matter the level, even – you want fun, you want entertainment and you want something true and unique that delivers an added benefit to the entire community.

MiLB.com’s Ben Hill had a great synopsis on fan reactions to these logo changes. Over time, complaints die down, the community embraces the quirkiness of the name, and the communities and minor league baseball as a whole are the better for it.

As an epilogue to the Portland Mavericks documentary: For the 1978 season, the Triple-A announced its return to Portland, Oregon, claiming territorial rights over the independent short-season Single-A team. After a lawsuit and a rights payment, the Triple-A won the war. Bing Russell’s Portland Mavericks were no longer, despite four division titles and several attendance records.

But ultimately, the already eccentric Portland market had been changed by the Mavericks experience and still never quite worked as a Triple-A fan base. The Triple-A team moved again in 1993. Then returned in 2001. Then moved for good in 2011, following the city’s decision to renovate old Civic Stadium for the MLS Portland Timbers. Currently, the Portland market’s only affiliated minor league baseball team is the Hillsboro Hops. Just like the Mavericks, they play in the short-season Single-A Northwest League.

The Portland Timbers now are one of the shining stars of the ever-expanding MLS. They have a rambunctious supporters group, an electric game-day environment, and, to an extent, draw flashbacks to Bing Russell’s Mavericks. If you watch the documentary, you’ll notice present-day Providence Park clearly visible in the old footage of Civic Stadium. It reminds you again of the potential for over-the-top fun sports experiences and how much that can mean to a community.

  • ClemJax

    Living in Jacksonville, I can say, without question, that the Jumbo Shrimp change has been met with almost 90% complete derision. It doesn’t help that the logo is a cousin of Trogdor the Burninator, but the big problem is that of tradition. The Jacksonville Suns were around since 1962 with the same name (outside of a small 5-year period when they were the Jacksonville Expos, around the same time that most other minor league teams had their parent names). To dump that outright for a cheesy rebrand that barely even makes sense is problematic in the extreme. Babby’s rep here has gone from “hey, let’s see what a new owner can do” do “typical northern boy trying to make a quick buck without giving a *bleep* about the community.” If this came from a natural outgrowth of community outreach and buy in, that’s one thing, But just to dump this joke of a team name on a town (that has a bigger inferiority complex than Cleveland does) just comes off as tone deaf and careless.

  • Chris

    It’s like naming a team the Clippers despite being about 150 miles from any significant open body of water.

  • ClemJax
  • RGB

    The Savannah Sand Gnats recently moved to Columbia. For several reasons…community apathy being the main reason.
    They were replaced with the Savannah…wait for it…Bananas!
    They are no longer a single A affiliate, but a Collegiate Summer League Team.
    Marketing has been heavily focused on schools. Kids LOVE the name. So, if the kids want to go, parents will follow.
    They also have a couple of local players on the team which helps interest a little.

    https://www.awesomesportslogos.com/prodImages/2016/SavannahBananas.png

  • Chris

    There are a few really good ones. Louisville River Bats is pretty awesome though. And those Indianapolis Indians – while not the most original – definitely have good taste.

  • tigersbrowns2

    excellent article , JACOB … living here in the Glass City , i get to enjoy our Toledo Mud Hens … and that they are the Tigers AAA affiliate is even better. a beautiful ballpark & an affordable day compared to making the trip to Comerica Park to watch the Tigers.

    yes , minor league baseball is alive & well.

  • tigersbrowns2

    it also helped that Jamie Farr constantly mentioned the Mud Hens & Tony Packo’s hot dogs on M*A*S*H … everyone’s heard of the Mud Hens , right ?? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d23b0953c379caed3f87d3d7685f105ba1a40c480daf4e34c484e637d2994123.png

  • Chris

    What’s M*A*S*H? A cooking show?

  • Harv

    or the Jazz, in Utah.

  • mgbode

    that is one mean looking banana

  • mgbode

    LA is the land of lakes, right?

  • RGB
  • tigersbrowns2
  • tigersbrowns2

    love it !

  • tigersbrowns2

    they started in New Orleans , but i’m sure you knew that.

  • tigersbrowns2

    they started in Minneapolis , but i’m sure you knew that.

  • mgbode
  • tigersbrowns2

    man , i’m gettin’ old …

  • maxfnmloans

    GMOs are just getting out of hand. Damn Monsanto

  • Chris
  • scripty

    Toledo played in the fairgrounds and for ages, was considered one of the worst parks in minor league baseball and had a hard time making money. They had all these “feel good factors” and never turned profit.

  • scripty

    You should read the Bad News Bees article from SI this summer. MiLB is for player development and profit. If fans truly loved the older charms, the teams wouldn’t modernize. Teams paying the contracts themselves is almost impossible to turn a profit in the long term, or unless you have an owner willing to suffer some losses or very unique advertisitng base in a minor league city.

    Also, many minor league teams now have plans to re-brand every 8-10 years so they can increase merchanise sales. It really is that simple. Yes, there is a loss for outdated forms, merch, signage, but if it’s done in a long-planned process, those losses are minor and not an obstacle.

    Yes, minor league teams can do some fun theme nights and old fashioned contests, but by and large the modern MiLB fan wants the creature comforts and clean modern parks. This “nostalgia” isn’t really represented in P/L data.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi SCRIPTY … haven’t seen you in a while & i’m pretty sure i know why (a NFL football team that rhymes with clowns) .

    yes, i watched many games there as a kid … it was built in like 1902 & was originally a dog racing track. people screamed when they wanted to build a new stadium … in reality , it was a dump & is still standing at the fairgrounds today & mostly used for the bands that play at the fair.

    it was replaced by 5/3 field in downtown Toledo & it is one of the finest minor league parks anywhere.

  • mgbode

    Everyone gets old if they are fortunate enough

  • Harv

    I read that and agree. Desperate hand-to-mouth hustling is fun and amusing … but usually in retrospect, or when you’re laughing at someone else doing it.

  • CB Everett

    My favorite due to the only piece of minor league gear I own:The Montgomery Biscuits! (butter and everything) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/da96df0a35aff4d1b89258a04e014b2bdc86d3896865d529ce8ee547a03e9221.png

  • scripty

    nah this is a bz time of year for me, lots of forecasts for 2017 to build and 2016 projections etc.

    i’ve worked in various minor league sports admins and old timey charm is not the way to make money; the more professional product you put out there, the more $$$ is to be made; per cap spending goes way up for teams the more they legitimize

  • mgbode

    Forever the standard bearer of MiLB names