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 Steve Hurlbert, the director of media relations for the Albuquerque Isotopes. Among other claims to fame, the Isotopes are the only team in Minor League Baseball whose name directly references an episode of The Simpsons.
MiLB.com: How would you characterize your team's fan base? Has it grown or changed in recent years?
Steve Hurlbert: Albuquerque is very much a baseball town and our fans are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the team. There is a storied history of Minor League Baseball in the city that includes the Albuquerque Dukes' longtime affiliation with the Los Angeles Dodgers that spanned from 1962 to 2000 and has been reborn for 2009. Since the inception of the Isotopes in 2003, the fan base has steadily and exponentially grown thanks in part to the popularity of Isotopes Park, which has become the premiere place in town for a night of affordable family fun.
MiLB.com: What type of marketing strategies do the fans respond to?
SH: With a state-of-the-art ballpark at our disposal, that usually becomes the focal point of what we're trying to market to the community. Every time a fan comes to an Isotopes game, there are a number of constants they can expect: a clean, safe facility and a night of fun entertainment at a reasonable price. Since our attendances have consistently ranked near the top in all of Triple-A Baseball, it's a strategy to which the community has responded in a positive manner. We are also extremely aggressive getting our mascot, Orbit, out in the community to further spread the message of family fun.
MiLB.com: Has your team staged any notable promotions in recent years? Any that just didn't work?
SH: Fireworks are always a fan favorite and our annual Orbit bobblehead is something that fans line up for hours before the gates open. We've found that some of our recurring giveaways build in popularity throughout the years and become something that fans eagerly look for each spring when the promotions schedule is unveiled.
MiLB.com: How has the internet affected the way your team is run?
SH: The internet is extremely important to how our team is run because it provides the best link to us for our fans. Internet merchandise sales have continued to climb and last year we instituted a mail manager campaign directly through our web site that delivers news of upcoming events and promotions directly into the inbox of our fans. We have found this to be an excellent way to keep our fans apprised of all the great things going on at Isotopes Park throughout the season.
MiLB.com: Does your concession stand serve any regional specialties or otherwise remarkable items?
SH: Since we are located in the southwest, Mexican food is an important staple of the fare at Isotopes Park and as such, tacos, enchiladas and burritos are all readily available throughout the park, all smothered with a choice of New Mexico red or green chile. One item that is a little unusual for ballparks is our Bananas Foster station, of which we have two in the ballpark. Fans can actually watch the delectable treats made right in front of them.
MiLB.com: What type of merchandise sells the best at the team store? Are there any unique items available for purchase?
SH: We're fortunate in that we have a team name and logo that is a popular brand not only in our region but nationwide, making most of the items in our team store hot sellers. Last season, we sold more caps than we had in any previous season, continuing a trend where our caps were our hottest selling item. T-shirts are also extremely popular. Every night we run a chile race similar to the famous sausage race in Milwaukee, only our competitors are a red chile, a green chile, a taco and a jar of salsa. A couple years ago we started selling plush dolls of our chile race competitors, which all have been received extremely well.
MiLB.com: How large of a role does your mascot play, both at the stadium and within the community?
SH: The only aspect of our organization that we market more heavily than our ballpark is our mascot, who has become an indelible part of our overall brand within the community. Regardless of what time of year it is, we are extremely aggressive getting Orbit out to schools and hospitals, where he always lights up a room. We have also sent Orbit to events involving some of our bigger corporate partners, where he almost instantly becomes the life of the party. Moreover, our mascot has evolved into a vital part of the ballpark experience where many fans -- kids and adults alike -- don't consider their trip to Isotopes Park complete without a visit from Orbit.
MiLB.com: Minor League stadiums often vary greatly from one another. What are the positives of playing in your facility? Any drawbacks?
SH: With a stadium that is still young, it's extremely difficult to find any drawbacks and the positives would fill about 100 pages. Isotopes Park features amenities for fan and player alike, with luxury suites, indoor batting cages, a play area in right field for the kids, plush clubhouses and myriad other features. Most of all, though, it's a clean, safe facility that is packed nearly every night with some of the best fans in Minor League Baseball. Put all of that together and you get a ballpark experience that is extremely special.
MiLB.com: What are some of your favorite on-field moments since you've been with the team?
SH: Since New Mexico has become a hotbed for movie making, the Isotopes have been fortunate to welcome many Hollywood celebrities. Two of particular note are Crash Davis himself, Kevin Costner, who came out a couple years ago and took batting practice with the team. Last year, Ray Liotta came out and threw a first pitch.
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.