The Minor League Baseball landscape is endlessly diverse and encompasses everything from rookie league clubs nestled in mountainous rural areas to Triple-A teams located in the heart of major urban centers. Accordingly, each club must develop marketing and promotional strategies that resonate with its unique fan base. Each week, MiLB.com profiles a Minor League club to spotlight just how interesting and varied the world of professional baseball can be.
Today, we speak with Shawn Marette, general manager of the Vero Beach Devil Rays (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays). The club spent 27 seasons as the Vero Beach Dodgers before switching affiliations prior to the 2007 campaign.
MiLB.com: How would you characterize your team's fan base? How has it grown or changed in recent years?
SM: Our team's fan base is a lot of retirees and young families. Our season ticket holders are very loyal, and the majority of them make it to at least 75 percent of the games. Since the affiliation change to the Rays in 2007, there have been some new Tampa fans coming out to Holman Stadium. Attendance is down slightly from when it was a Dodger affiliate.
MiLB.com: What type of marketing strategies do the fans respond to?
SM: The most valuable marketing strategy for us is word of mouth. Like most Minor League teams, our advertising budgets are small. We do advertise in print, radio and the internet, but nothing is more valuable than word of mouth from fans who come out and share their experiences with their co-workers, neighbors and friends. That is why our staff takes great pride in putting on a great show, whether it's Opening Night or a midweek game.
MiLB.com: Has your team staged any notable creative or offbeat promotions in recent years?
SM: Our staff has been able to put on some great theme nights. Hurricane Awareness Night, Rivalry Night, Pirates Night and Western Night are some that our fans have enjoyed.
Last year our public address announcer was on vacation and had to miss a game. I decided to have a Silent Night where we passed out cheer cards and did not use any public address announcements or music. Fans also could not cheer except for the cheer cards and non-verbal communication. The day before Silent Night, it rained all day and the game was postponed and made up as a doubleheader on Silent Night. The first game of the doubleheader was fun, but the second game was way too long to go without cheering. Our fans were getting restless and finally after we hit a home run late into Game 2 we hit the music and the crowd went crazy. I learned not to have a Silent Night for both games of a doubleheader.
We also had Chocolate Rain Night, where we paid tribute to the song and the artist of the song, Tay Zonday. This was a huge YouTube phenomenon last summer, and we decided to have some fun with it. The problem is that a lot of our fans are retirees and have never heard of Chocolate Rain or even YouTube. We also made it rain chocolate during the game. We froze the candy that we tossed out of the press box, and we probably should have given the candy a little more time to thaw out.
MiLB.com: How has the internet affected the way your team is run?
SM: The internet is a great tool, and our team makes a point to keep our website up to date. We want our fans to be able to browse our website and find the information they are looking for. The internet has also helped promote and communicate with fans. Our mascot, Squeeze, has his own MySpace page. He regularly posts bulletins and tells fans about upcoming happenings at Holman Stadium.
MiLB.com: Does your concession stand serve any regional specialties or otherwise remarkable items?
SM: Our concession stand does not serve any region-specific items, but there are plenty of remarkable items such as our Dodger Dog, nachos supreme and a great Philly cheese steak.
MiLB.com: What type of merchandise sells best at the team store? Are there any unique items available for purchase?
SM: At Holman Stadium the merchandise that sells the best is hats, shirts and baseballs. There are some unique items in our Vero Beach Devil Rays Gift Shop, most notably all of the Los Angeles Dodgers merchandise. This is because Holman Stadium is at Dodgertown and the Los Angeles Dodgers hold Spring Training here. The Dodgers also have their extended spring training, GCL and injury rehabilitation programs based at Dodgertown.
MiLB.com: How large of a role does your mascot play, both at the stadium and within the community?
SM: Our mascot, Squeeze, is the face of our franchise. We use him in a variety of on-field promotions, and he interacts with the fans every game. He is also a staple at community events, especially during the offseason. Most of the players in Minor League Baseball change from year to year and also do not live here in the offseason. Having a mascot really helps the community connect to the team. If we take Squeeze out to a community appearance with a player, it is not uncommon for Squeeze to draw more attention than the player.
MiLB.com: Minor League stadiums often vary greatly from one another. What are the positives of playing in your facility? Any drawbacks?
SM: The positive of playing at the Dodgertown facility is that it is a Spring Training facility. The facilities here are top-notch. There are six practice fields along with two batting cages and pitching strings areas. Our manager of grounds maintenance, Steve Carlsward, and his staff keep the grounds at Dodgertown pristine all season long. Holman Stadium lacks coverings on its dugouts and is very fan-friendly. This is a positive but can also be a drawback. Our games on Sundays are at 1:00 p.m., and there are no hiding spots from the elements. For a place that is called the "Sunshine State," Florida sure gets a lot of rain in the summer. When it rains, the players and staff get wet just like the fans do.
MiLB.com: What are some of your favorite on-field moments since you've been with the team?
SM: My favorite on-field moment took place during the 2005 Florida State League playoffs. The Vero Beach Dodgers were facing elimination against the Palm Beach Cardinals. It was the bottom of the ninth and we were trailing by a run with two outs. Blake Dewitt, who had just been called up a week earlier, was batting and worked the count full. He fouled off pitch after pitch. It was a 12- or 13-pitch at-bat. Finally he connected on a walk-off homer. Everyone went crazy. It was the most dramatic moment from my four seasons in Vero Beach.
Another great memory is from last season when we staged Pirates Night. The whole staff dressed up in pirate costumes. During the game we had pirate-themed on-field promotions, and we also put on a five-act play that took place between innings. The performance ended on our outfield berm with a classic sword fight.
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.