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10/02/2006 8:34 AM ET
Teams swap ideas at MiLB Promo Seminar
Record turnout analyzes what works, what doesn't in Minor Leagues
Execs say team mascots such as Jacksonville's Southpaw are an important part of team branding.  (Jerry Hale/MLB.com)

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"If you have an apple and I have an apple, and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have an apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas." --George Bernard Shaw

CHARLOTTE -- The theme for this year's Minor League Baseball Promotion Seminar was "one idea is worth the price of admission."

If that's the case, then the 366 participants -- made up of Minor League front-office executives, public relations and marketing personnel and job seekers -- got their money's worth in the first hour of the four-day seminar, which took place Sept. 26-29 at the Hilton City Center in Charlotte.

With a packed house of veterans and first-timers, the seminar kicked off with a group-wide introduction -- with each attendee naming one promotional idea that worked for their team last season.

There was no shortage of fun, wacky promos listed as the microphone was passed around the room: Agriculture Night in Visalia (with an on-field cow-milking contest); Loaves of Bread Night in Rancho Cucamonga ("25,000 loaves given away!"); giant eyeball races in Winston-Salem ("fans love giant eyeballs"); Insignificant Events Night in Tri-City ("a tribute to nothing") and Kevin Federline Appreciation Day in Fresno ("in honor of our very own Mr. Britney Spears").

"This is a casual event with serious undertones," said Dan Migala, moderator of the Promotions Seminar and editor of The Migala Report, a sports industry business newsletter based in Chicago. "It's all about the sharing of ideas, and I think it makes this particular event unique."

This year's seminar was the largest ever with representatives from 95 teams around the country, along with Mexico and the Dominican Republic. There were 30 speakers over three days of panel discussions; three off-site events, including a ballpark tour of beautiful Knights Stadium in Fort Mill, S.C.; a job fair with a nearly 5:1 jobs-to-applicants ratio and a select group of three dozen exhibitors, showcasing the latest in promotional items, jerseys and stadium supplies.

One of the messages delivered during the seminar was to not be afraid to take a chance. For example, Myrtle Beach promotions manager Bradley Bell talked about his club's most outrageous promotion of the 2006 season: staging a live theatrical production of community theater in between innings of a Pelicans game. The play was called The Game is On and filled the ballpark with music, song and dance during its world premiere in July.

"The first reaction we got from most people was 'What in the world is this?'" Bell said. "But we wanted to come up with something new. And nothing like this had ever happened in baseball -- it may never happen again. But we were hoping for national media attention, and we got that."

Bell said The Game is On, which followed the story of three fans trying to catch a foul ball, was featured in ESPN magazine, Baseball America and MiLB.com's weekly Promo Preview as well as local TV and news. Attendance increased 30 percent during its three-night run.

 A five-pack of Minor League promo ideas
There was no shortage of clever ideas for promos at the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar.

"One of the great things about this industry is being able to get great ideas from other clubs," Stockton Ports general manager Pat Fillipone said. "If you can tweak these ideas to your own market, you'll look like a superhero."

Here are five ideas that could help you look like Superman at a ballpark near you (costume not included):

Nothing Night -- Courtesy of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the team's staff honored this promotion last season by doing absolutely nothing at the ballpark. There was no PA announcer, no concessions, no nothing.

IronBird for a Day -- Aberdeen ran this promotion in 2006 that allowed a local fan to be a player for a day. Fans filled out entry forms at a local pizzeria, which sponsored the event, and the winner got to take part in BP, infield and even coached some first base.

Sportswriters Clinic -- This event in Stockton proved to be great opportunity for local high school kids to come to the ballpark and meet the beat writers covering the Ports.

Naturalization Ceremony on July 4 -- The Memphis Redbirds took fireworks a step further with an on-field ceremony during which 200 people from countries all over the world became U.S. citizens. It was also the largest crowd in AutoZone Park history.

Chase the Bunny -- The concept is simple: Dress up someone in a bunny suit and have them run around the outfield, chased by a group of kids. Jacksonville GM Kirk Goodman admits to thinking it was the "dumbest idea we'd ever heard" at first. "But the fans went crazy, the kids loved it, and we do it all year now."

--A.T.
The players and even the coaches got a kick out of the Pelicans play. "It sounds crazy but we didn't interfere with the actual game at all," said Bell, who got his start in Minor League Baseball in 2003 working as a ticket seller for the Durham Bulls. "We got a lot of compliments from the players and coaches."

Developing your brand was another theme of the seminar. This extends to everything from the team's nickname to its colors to the ballpark and even to the mascot.

"When you're developing a new mascot, don't start with what it looks like," said Dave Raymond, owner of the Raymond Entertainment Group. "Start with the mascots' personality profile and bio."

Raymond described a pivotal moment in his life, before taking the field for the first time dressed as the original Phillie Phanatic. He hadn't been given much direction on what to do and turned to then-owner Bill Giles for advice. "He told me to 'go out there and have fun.' Well, I was a college student, and I certainly knew how to do that. Of course, it had to be G-rated fun."

Thirty years later, after a career spent delivering the subtle message that Phillies baseball was fun, Raymond said "the Phanatic is firmly entrenched in the hearts of minds of Philadelphia."

Some teams apply commando-style tactics to their branding. For example, Greensboro president/GM Donald Moore said before his club officially switched its name to the Grasshoppers in October 2004, he used to go to a supply store on the edge of town, where he'd buy 150 to 200 live grasshoppers at a time to release in the brand-new First Horizon Ballpark.

"Nobody on the staff even knew I was doing this, but I'd just let these grasshoppers go," said Moore. "We really wanted our fans to catch the bug."

Along with branding and not being afraid to take a chance, there are other challenges facing Minor League Baseball teams. Derrick Grubbs, general manager of the Round Rock Express, talked about dealing with the "homestand from hell -- and living to talk about it."

Grubbs -- who is in his 16th season in professional baseball, having worked for the Wichita Wranglers, El Paso Diablos, Houston Astros, Charlotte Knights and New Orleans Zephyrs -- preached the importance of planning ahead for those "hot spots" during the season, such as when Round Rock played 17 home games during 21 days in August.

"If you anticipate disaster, you're always one step closer to the bomb shelter," Grubbs said. "When we're working together, it's a lot easier to get through it."

Round Rock made national headlines this past season when seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens pitched there as part of his Rocket relaunch with the Astros. Among the Express-record 13,475 fans at The Dell Diamond that night were seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and actor Matthew McConaughey, sitting in the front row next to the Express dugout.

"It was a real special night," Grubbs said. "When you have a chance to be on the national stage, just make sure you cross all the T's. Make sure you embrace the event; don't let the event embrace you."

Minor League Baseball's role in the community was another prominent theme at the Promo Seminar. For instance, Lisa Walker, VP of marketing for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, gave a presentation entitled "How Community Relations Can Positively Affect Your Attendance."

Walker, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, explained the rationale behind her club's fifth-anniversary Breast Cancer Awareness promotion in 2006. "The whole program was about celebrating the cancer survivors in our community," she said. "So we brought them on the field; they met the players and threw out first pitches. It was really a celebration because frankly everyday is a gift."

The club decided not to hit up fans for fund-raising during the promotion. "We didn't want it to be in your face," Walker said. But the Volcanoes obtained sponsorships from a local oncologist and a pharmaceutical company to offset the costs and generate a profit.

"Community involvement drives ticket sales, and this offers us the chance to give back," Walker said. "It's the kind of promotion that never goes stale."

Andrew Tarica is an editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.