SBJ/January 23 - 29, 2006/Marketingsponsorship

Baseball hits the road to drum up business

Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter can’t help but be amused when he sees other MLB clubs embarking in winter caravans to meet fans, deepen regional ties and drum up ticket sales. The Twins are in the midst of a mammoth, four-state, 52-city tour covering 11 days, dwarfing three- and four-day efforts seen around much of the league.

“A lot of teams say they do a caravan, and we just chuckle,” St. Peter said. “This is a real caravan we’re doing, and a very significant commitment by this ball club. Really, it’s one of the more important things we do all year.”

The rest of baseball may challenge St. Peter’s bravado on the first point, but there is fast-growing agreement on the latter point. As consumers become increasingly numb to traditional marketing efforts and teams face heightened pressure to maintain the high payrolls and record-setting ticket sales of recent years, the winter caravan and its old-school, grassroots approach is taking on greater importance than ever.

Fifteen MLB clubs are holding caravans this month, and though some teams such as the Twins began making tours in the 1960s, the modern MLB winter caravan is marked by six-figure operating budgets, highly crafted marketing strategies to maximize media exposure, and, in some cases, corporate sponsors.

The Seattle Mariners recently signed home furnishings retailer Ikea as the title sponsor of their winter caravan. Similarly, the Twins’ effort is sponsored by Dodge; the St. Louis Cardinals’ caravan has Anheuser-Busch as a backer; Fox Sports Net supports the Detroit Tigers’ caravan; and a six-state New England caravan conducted by the Boston Red Sox is presented by Coca-Cola.

“We had a growth in [game] attendance of more than 500,000 people last year, and we think that definitely owes in part to what we did last year with the caravan and what it did to help set up the marketplace,” said Dave Howard, New York Mets executive vice president of business operations. The Mets’ 2006 caravan is scheduled to start Tuesday.

“[Last year’s caravan] was the first real chance for a lot of our fans to meet our new players like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, and we think it did a lot to reset the conversation about our team and get people charged up for the season,” said Howard.

Expanding upon traditional, in-town FanFest efforts, the winter caravans mark an effort to boost sales in outlying areas and generate baseball talk among fans in the dead of winter. Many of the stops on each team’s tour are predictable, such as autograph signings, school assemblies and charitable fund-raisers in cities home to minor league and radio affiliates. Others, such as the Mets’ planned visit to the New York Stock Exchange, are high-profile events deliberately calculated to get the team ink and airtime in the local news.

For clubs with large geographic territories, the caravans represent an indispensable tool. About half of the Mariners’ fans at Safeco Field each year arrive from at least a 90-minute drive outside of Seattle. The Cardinals generate 40 percent of their ticket sales from 100 miles outside St. Louis. The Twins and Tigers reap about one-third of their sales from outside their metro markets. The list goes on and on.

“These outside markets are simply critical to our survival,” said Cardinals President Mark Lamping, “so it makes obvious sense to reach out to these fans and give them another meaningful opportunity to talk some baseball and make contact with the club.”

The caravans, however, are not without their challenges. Perhaps foremost among them is getting players, particularly stars and veterans, to appear. Once the season ends, most players leave their club for either warmer climates, homes in tax-favorable locales, or both. The upcoming World Baseball Classic further compresses an already scant offseason.

As a result, the rosters for many teams’ caravans are littered with coaches, prospects and lesser-known role players. The Red Sox, for example, hit the road earlier this month with young pitchers Jon Papelbon and Craig Hansen, hitting coach Ron Jackson and mascot Wally the Green Monster, with key cogs such as Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Curt Schilling notably absent.

The Mets, like most caravan clubs, pay for the travel expenses of players who commit to the event. They, however, have had success attracting star talent due to three other key selling points: the allure of New York as a vacation spot, a willingness to pay for five-star hotel rooms, and the creation of a jam-packed schedule of activities for wives and girlfriends accompanying the ballplayers. Mets players committed for this year’s caravan include pitcher Tom Glavine and recent acquisitions Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca.

“We don’t want [the wives and girlfriends] staying in the hotel room,” Howard said. “The wives’ experience is a very important part of all this. They take part in some of the community and charitable events. We’ve put together fashion shows and shopping excursions for them. Some will help out with the blood drive we’re planning. They’re directly involved in the success of the caravan.”

Road trip: Caravan schedules for MLB clubs this winter
Club Dates Highlights
Arizona Diamondbacks Jan. 13-14 13-city "Hometown Tour" through much of Arizona
Boston Red Sox Jan. 9-12 Stops in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts
Chicago Cubs Jan. 11-12 Two separate tours, going through both inner-city Chicago and area suburbs
Cincinnati Reds Jan. 26-29 Seven stops in Ohio and northern Kentucky
Cleveland Indians Jan. 23-26 Two separate tours, going through northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania
Detroit Tigers Jan. 23-24 Two separate tours, making stops throughout Michigan and Toledo, Ohio (Class AAA affiliate)
Houston Astros Jan. 17-19, 21, Stops across south and central Texas, including metro Houston, San Antonio 23-25; Feb. 6-9
Kansas City Royals Jan. 4-7 Stops in western Missouri, eastern Kansas and northwest Arkansas
Minnesota Twins Jan. 4-7, 16-26 A swing in southwest Florida, near the club's spring training site, followed by a 52-stop swing through Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota
New York Mets Jan. 24-27 Events throughout New York City's five boroughs, Long Island, and suburban areas in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut
Philadelphia Phillies Jan. 19-28 Appearances in southern New Jersey and northeast Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh Pirates Jan. 16-Feb. 3 27-city tour will go through western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, western Maryland and upper West Virginia
St. Louis Cardinals Jan. 12-17 Stops in Missouri, southern Illinois and northwestern Tennessee
Seattle Mariners Jan. 10-27 18-stop tour across Washington, Oregon and Vancouver
Texas Rangers Jan. 6-25 Six separate trips through Texas and three "Town Hall" meetings for fans
Source: MLB clubs

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