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Volume 20 No. 46
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Cubs’ trickle-down helps MiLB extend streak

Minor League Baseball and its teams sold a record $68.4 million in merchandise in 2016, a 5 percent increase over 2015’s then-record total of $65.1 million, according to data scheduled to be released this week.

The revenue represents sales of team-branded apparel, headwear and novelties by the 160 member clubs that are based in the United States and Canada. It also includes licensing fees and royalties paid directly to MiLB through baseball trading card contracts and the use of historic club marks. The record haul marks the category’s seventh straight annual increase and an overall growth rate of 49 percent during that span.

The South Bend (Ind.) Cubs and Iowa Cubs took advantage of their parent club's World Series championship through increased merchandise sales at the end of last year.

MiLB does not release team-specific data. This is the 24th straight year, since the 1993 season, that MiLB has released merchandise sales data.

While the annual list is often populated by teams with unique, locally inspired names (the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, for example, have made the list in every one of its nine seasons, and the Toledo Mud Hens have been there 21 times), this year’s tally includes a double dose of a moniker that looks strikingly similar to one that set numerous sports industry merchandise sales records last fall.

The Iowa Cubs, the Class AAA affiliate of the 2016 World Series champions, made the list for the first time in team history. Shelby Heimbuch, the I-Cubs’ director of merchandise, said the club definitely benefited from the parent team’s success.

“We had quite a bit of excitement from the World Series, which caused a huge push in sales at the end of the year,” she said.

Sam Bernabe, the Des Moines-based team’s president and general manager, said sales last year were 25 percent higher than what they had generated during a record 2015. Sales so far this season are pacing 18 percent ahead of where they were at this time a year ago, Bernabe said.

Six hours east on I-80, the South Bend (Ind.) Cubs became Chicago’s Class A affiliate in 2015 and have now made the list two years in a row. The franchise made the list just once prior to that, in 1997 when it was known as the Silver Hawks.

Nick Brown, the Indiana club’s vice president and general manager, said that its 2016 numbers were down slightly from a record 2015, but that sales soared after the parent club broke the 108-year World Series drought.

“This product was already out there after 2015,” he said. “People who bought four shirts in 2015 only bought one last year.”

Brown said the World Series accounted for end-of-year gains as the team set up kiosks in a local mall to capture holiday sales. Sales so far this year are pacing 75 percent ahead of the first five months of last year, he said, with World Series-related merchandise being the “staple” items.

Beyond the glow provided by the Cubs, the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies, the New York Mets’ Class A affiliate, made the list after their inaugural season in South Carolina’s capital. The club was the South Atlantic League’s lone representative on the list but helped the league generate $4.3 million in sales, an MiLB-high increase of 36 percent over 2015.

John Katz, the team’s president, was elated. He said the club’s sales were up 519 percent versus 2015, its last year as the Savannah (Ga.) Sand Gnats, 62 percent over its projected budget and 8.5 percent better than the ownership group’s highly successful 2009 launch of the Class A Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps.

Expectations are even higher for 2017 based on one very popular Firefly.

“The brand has continued its growth in 2017, as we are up 43.6 percent versus 2016 year-to-date,” Katz said. “Contributing to this are our growing fan base, increased attendance and, yes, the presence of Tim Tebow. Our online sales are up 258 percent, and we think that much of that is influenced by Tebow.”

Katz noted that online sales represented about 3.5 percent of the club’s merchandise sales in 2016 but are at 8.8 percent of that total thus far in 2017.

Returning to the list were the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs, the Boston Red Sox’s Class AA affiliate, who in 2015 for the first time since the club was born in 1994 failed to appear on the top 25. John Kameisha, the Sea Dogs’ senior vice president, said that last year’s merchandise sales were the highest the club had generated since 2009 and that revenue was up 5 percent over 2015.

Other highlights from the data:
Twenty different MLB organizations were represented by affiliate teams on the list. The Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres each placed two affiliates in the top 25.

In 2015, the Padres were the first — and still the only — MLB club to have four affiliates on the list — the El Paso (Texas) Chihuahuas, San Antonio Missions, Lake Elsinore (Calif.) Storm and Fort Wayne TinCaps.

The Class AAA Reno (Nev.) Aces failed to make the list for the first time since the club debuted in the city in 2009.

In 2015, the Biloxi (Miss.) Shuckers and San Antonio Missions (both AA) each made their first appearance on the list. However, neither made it in 2016.