Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 13
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Minor leagues continue to crack code on fan engagement

There is nothing minor about MiLB.

The name is a complete misnomer. How can something be called minor if:
• It draws nearly 42 million fans annually (with a goal of 50 million by 2026).
• Is the second-most-attended pro sports league in North America after MLB.
Had more than 14 million unique attendees in 2017 (second largest among the major U.S. professional sport leagues). 
Has 160 “franchisees” in 43 states — 126 of which are located in the top 100 U.S. DMAs.
Can be accessed (attending games) by more than 76 percent of the U.S. population.
Owns the longest sellout streak in all U.S. professional sports — 18 consecutive years (not games) through 2017: the Dayton Dragons.
Was recognized by SportsBusiness Journal as the league with the most fan-friendly experience (2014-17).
Has a growing base of national corporate partners.

While those accomplishments might not be termed major in our sports vernacular, they are in marketing terms along with words like important, unprecedented and impressive. Why is it so successful? As a marketer, my interpretation is that it is so successful because it is the only professional sport in North America where team performance and player performance/roster composition is not a key ingredient to how they define success. Success is solely based upon the quality of the experience. Success isn’t winning on the field in MiLB — success is fan satisfaction, producing a memory-making experience and capturing everything outside the white lines.

When I think of MiLB, I think of the McDonald’s tag line that was a core message during its 1990 ad campaign “Back to the Basics.” That tag line was “Food, Folks and Fun” and is really at the core of the MiLB experience.

MiLB is really about everything that happens off the field. Fans are not concerned with pace of play, free agency and cost of attendance. They are focused on enjoying themselves with the other people with whom they are attending — and consuming the baseball game in a way that best fits that group. That might mean watching while floating in a Lazy River in Frisco (see last month’s SBJ Sutton Impact), dinner with a mascot, stopping by after work for a few innings and a few beers with co-workers, attending a pregame clinic with a Little League team, or simply an affordable evening of communal entertainment and bonding. The point is, as cost is not an impediment, and the experience is the driver, it is up to the fan to create what is most meaningful for them with the full support of the team hosting your event.

“Our clubs have been industry leaders in authentic fan engagement for generations,” said David Wright, chief marketing and commercial officer for MiLB. “As we look forward and focus on next-gen fandom, we are keenly focused on how we best leverage technology, content and strategic partnerships to drive year-round engagement.”

As MiLB teams continue to innovate and enhance the fan experience, it has drawn the interest from dynamic owners with successful pedigrees across myriad industries (Procter & Gamble, Blackstone, Chiquita, other Fortune 500 companies) to invest and make a significant impact on the business. In the 2017 SBJ Reader Survey, MiLB was ranked as the second-wisest investment five years from now, speaking to the exponential growth for the league and teams. The influx of influential, innovative ownership continues to elevate the fan experience throughout the country. One prime example of a leading fan-first approach can be found in Dayton, Ohio. 

Year after year, and without a championship title, the Dayton Dragons are solving the mysteries of marketing to families and fans.
Photo: getty images

Dayton is 53 miles from Cincinnati, home of the Reds. In other words, Dayton is part of the Reds’ target market, and the Dragons are the Class A minor league affiliate of the Reds. The Dragons, as previously documented, have sold out every game for 18 consecutive years. During that time they have never won a Class A championship, and in fact have had two years where they lost 90 games in a 140-game season. While they have had players who are highly recognizable now in the major leagues — Joey Votto, Billy Hamilton, Justin Turner and Didi Gregorius — they played in Dayton very early in their careers before they had any name recognition. What is the draw?

According to Dragons President Rob Murphy, “The Dragons sell entertainment much more than they sell baseball. They sell a family atmosphere and a night out, and while every minor league team likely has that as a plan, in Dayton it has worked and keeps working. Until people come here and experience it, they don’t understand it. It’s why I always hear people saying, ‘My wife hates sports, but she loves coming to Dragons games.’ People drive home thinking, ‘I’m not sure whether we won 3-2 or lost 3-2, but I know we had a good time.’”

Dragons mascot Heater is one part of Dayton’s game-day recipe at Fifth Third Field.
Photo: getty images

So the secret sauce is a combination of value/worth, innovation, accessibility (MiLB players are excited when asked for autographs, pose for a selfie or volunteer in the community), fireworks, giveaways, mascots, creative concessions items and theme nights. Why is all of this important? Because as the late Bill Veeck once said: “If I was dependent upon baseball fans to generate attendance, I would be out of business by Memorial Day.”

MiLB has created an entertainment opportunity where the type of experience provided is dictated and in large part controlled by the fan. In 2018 this might be viewed as customization because what every fan experiences is completely subjective and all they leave the ballpark with is a memory. So, the more they can experience, the better the memory and the likelihood of a return visit. And isn’t that the true key to a successful brick-and-mortar business in 2018?

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.