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:
- New Orleans Zephyrs (Triple-A, Miami): Changed names to become the New Orleans Baby Cakes
- Jacksonville Suns (Double-A, Miami): Changed names to become the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp
- Binghamton Mets (Double-A, NY Mets): Changed names to become the Binghamton Rumble Ponies
- High Desert Mavericks (High Single-A, Texas): Moved and became the Down East Wood Ducks
- Brevard County Manatees (High Single-A, Milwaukee): Changed affiliates (Atlanta), moved and became the Florida Fire Frogs
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.
Stages of fan reaction to @MiLB rebrands:
-Still More Rage
-Final Burst of Rage
— Benjamin Hill (@bensbiz) November 2, 2016
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.