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 Jason Dambach, director of communications and broadcasting for the Altoona Curve (Double-A affiliate of the Pirates). Over the past decade, the Curve have established themselves as one of the most risk-taking and innovative teams in Minor League Baseball.
MiLB.com: How would characterize your team's fan base? Has it grown or changed in recent years?
JD: Central Pennsylvania is a very sports-minded area, and that has fueled our franchise's success. We are known for our creative promotions, our spectacular ballpark (Blair County Ballpark) and a setting that we feel is second to none. But at the very root of our club's success is the fact that sports matter to the residents of Central PA, and when the people of this region look for entertainment, they generally think about sports. Whether it's the Curve, Penn State football, the Pirates or the Steelers, sports in this area are a way of life. It is that, along with many other factors, that has helped the Curve leave such a strong footprint.
We have been successful in growing our brand not just in Altoona, but throughout all of Central and Western PA. Our slogan is "Everybody's Hometown Team," meaning our goal is that we want someone who lives an hour away in a town like Indiana, Clearfield or Huntingdon to think of the Curve as THEIR team, just as much as someone who lives a mile from our ballpark. All you have to do is look at our group list for any particular game to see the fact that folks from towns as far as two hours away routinely bring their families and friends to Curve games.
MiLB.com: What type of marketing strategies do the fans respond to?
JD: Our marketing strategy combines traditional marketing (including print, radio and TV) and utilizes community relations, grassroots and target marketing to get the best response. In-stadium promotion of targeted products also produces immediate and in most cases traceable return. But our most effective and quantifiable marketing strategy is our dedication to sales skill development within our dedicated sales staff.
MiLB.com: Has your team staged any notable promotions in recent years? Any that just didn't work?
JD: We have been fortunate to be recognized for our promotional schedule, as we won the Larry MacPhail Promotional Trophy in 2004 and the John H. Johnson Trophy for overall franchise excellence in 2006. Those awards were the result of our staff never getting stale in any area of our operation, most notably our promotional calendar.
I guess what we are most known for are our clever, fun and sometimes head-scratching theme nights like Awful Night, Stink Night, Salute to Forgotten Presidents and many more of that ilk. This year, we wanted to focus on several ticket and food-related promotions to give our fans extra incentive to come to early-season games. Many clubs, particularly in the Northeast, are resigned to the fact that April is a lost month because many fans are concerned about weather. This year, we introduced several promotions such as Half-Price Curve Burger/$1 Hot Dog Night, a $5 Curve Gift Card giveaway, a Dime-a-Degree Night and some other ticket discount programs to entice fans to come to games early in the season. We felt like this was our best promotional schedule yet.
MiLB.com: How has the internet affected the way your team is run?
JD: There is no question that the internet has affected our operation, just as it has the operation of almost all of the business world. We have found that more and more fans are comfortable going to our website and purchasing tickets instead of purchasing over the phone or in line at our ticket office. Obviously, online ticket and merchandise sales take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so our fans have much more convenience when making their buying decisions. We try to educate our fans that if you have a question about tickets, promotions, merchandise or anything else about the Curve, then you can visit our website.
MiLB.com: Does your concession stand serve any regional specialties or otherwise remarkable items?
JD: Our most popular food item are "Curve Burgers." We hear more comments from fans saying how they came to the game to eat a Curve Burger just as much as they did to see the game. We have even teamed with U.S. Foodservice and have promoted to our fans where they can buy their very own Curve Burgers. The most regional special item we offer would have to be our "Parney Fried Bologna" sandwich, which was a childhood favorite of general manager Todd Parnell, and an item that isn't likely to be on many other menus across Minor League Baseball.
MiLB.com: What type of merchandise sells best at the team store? Are there any unique items available for purchase?
JD: Hats and T-shirts are the fastest selling, due to demand and a favorable price point. We offer a variety of seasonal, retro and anniversary apparel. Fans also can find a wide range of collectibles and novelties in addition to the more traditional team merchandise.
MiLB.com: How large of a role does your mascot play, both at the stadium and within the community?
JD: We have two "traditional" mascots and one living mascot. Our traditional mascots, Steamer and Diesel Dawg, are very popular, and there is nothing more satisfying than when we make community or school appearances as far as two hours away and almost everyone knows their name. I would say that Steamer, in particular, is by far the most recognizable "thing" in Central Pennsylvania. His large green head, which represents the stack of a steam engine, and his fat belly are his best and funniest characteristics.
This season, we introduced a living mascot, Bob the Baseball Dog. He is a yellow Labrador retriever who has been an instant hit with fans. Bob is being groomed for on-field tricks, and we are bringing him along slowly with the goal of making him a full-time "bat dog" by 2009. In the interim, he has appeared at every game meeting and greeting fans with his wet nose and wagging tail, has made several school and community appearances, and moving forward we see him as an important part of our community relations team.
MiLB.com: Minor League stadiums often vary greatly from one another. What are the positives of playing in your facility? Any drawbacks?
JD: I don't know that I could even describe how fortunate we are to have the ballpark that we do. Blair County Ballpark is an absolute crown jewel, and the initial credit has to go to the original owners of the franchise who didn't cut any corners when it came to acquiring land, approving a state-of-the-art design and, most importantly, not cutting any corners.
Of course, in 10 years there have been many changes to the ballpark. The most notable came in 2003 when our president, Chuck Greenberg, spearheaded nearly $1 million in capital improvements to add a 300-person left-field picnic pavilion, a left-field party deck and an outfielder bleacher section. Those changes made what was already a very aesthetically pleasing ballpark even more beautiful. Prior to 2006, our ownership spent an additional $1 million adding a state-of-the-art, 1,000-square-foot video board, which is unparalleled in our league. The location of the ballpark couldn't have been any better, either. It is located just off Interstate 99, meaning that it offers perfect access for fans and provides an attractive landmark for commuters who travel along the interstate each day.
MiLB.com: What are some of your favorite on-field moments since you've been with the team?
JD: We have had many visits from some of the most well-known personalities in sports and entertainment, but on July 4, 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney threw out a first pitch, addressed the crowd and watched several innings of that day's game. No matter your political preference, to have a sitting U.S. Vice President in attendance was a surreal experience. Our ownership group includes superstar athletes Jerome Bettis and Mario Lemieux, and their visits over the years have obviously created quite a buzz, particularly since most residents of Central PA are die-hard Pittsburgh sports fans. Our franchise has yet to win a championship, but we were fortunate enough to earn four consecutive post-season appearances from 2003-06, including a trip to the 2004 Eastern League Championship Series.
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.