LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- You can't spell "Promo Seminar" without "post mortem." Well, almost.
But even in the absence of what would have been a fortuitous bit of alphabetical overlap, the point remains: the annual Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar represents an opportunity for the industry to come together as one so that it may discuss the present, plan for the future and, perhaps most beneficially, perform an autopsy on the recently-concluded baseball campaign.
"What worked, what didn't, and why?" is the Promotional Seminar's single-most common question (or would that be three questions?), and the 2013 iteration -- held in downtown Louisville's Galt House Hotel from Tuesday through Thursday -- was no exception. The centerpiece of the seminar was Wednesday morning's "Around the Horn" session, emceed by Richmond Flying Squirrels vice/COO president Todd Parnell amidst an almost non-stop barrage of jokes related to his formidable alcohol tolerance. For nearly three hours Seminar attendees, representing teams located across the nation and operating in markets large and small, passed a microphone around the room and relayed their biggest successes (and in some cases, embarrassing failures) of the 2013 season.
Taken collectively, these Minor League executive anecdotes are as good a representation as any regarding the state of American culture in 2013. To wit, events and promotions with a military theme resonate in profound ways, the A&E Network's Duck Dynasty is wildly popular and the zombie apocalypse will soon be upon us.
Indeed, it was the military in particular and community-minded events in general that were talked about the most. The Mobile BayBears became the latest team to install a POW/MIA seat at their stadium, for example, and the response was so positive that the club is expanding the initiative in 2014 by placing military families in the area around the seat so that they may symbolically guard it. Meanwhile, the Lowell Spinners staged a giveaway that is almost sure to be emulated by other teams next season and beyond: sets of trading cards featuring local war veterans with their stats (places served and awards won) listed on the back.
And, yes, Minor League teams learned that the popularity of Duck Dynasty is truly a force to be reckoned with. State College Spikes general manager Jason Dambach said that while the reality series' principal characters commanded exorbitant appearance fees, he was nonetheless able to book ancillary cast member "Mountain Man" at the ballpark. Dambach called it the best and most talked-about promotion that the team has ever done, as it drew the largest crowd in franchise history (with Mountain Man going above and beyond by signing autographs until past midnight, hours after the ballgame had ended).
Finally, there were the zombies. Teams such as Frederick and Mahoning Valley have enjoyed success with undead theme nights in the past, and on Wednesday the Inland Empire 66ers extolled the virtues of the impending zombie apocalypse.
"There was fake blood and body parts everywhere," said promotions director Michael Kowallis of the 66ers' Zombie Apocalypse Night. "It was great."
The Promotional Seminar is a well-structured event, with the agenda divided into three main components: Presentations (in which one speaker presents to all attendees), Power Sessions (moderated panel discussions in front of all attendees) and Group Therapy (categorically divided small group discussions running concurrently with one another).
Yet for all that, some of the more interesting moments and discussions are those that arise in the margins, covering topics that could never be planned for by event organizers and would never even occur to the average fan. For example, in the downtime following the scheduled portion of the "Around the Horn" session, Parnell (who, for the record, is much more commonly known by his nickname of "Parney") commented on the enduring popularity of fireworks. But one of the downsides of this timeless ballpark attraction is that, afterwards, the field is littered with spent shells.
"It was so demoralizing for [our front office] to clean after 16-hour work days that we hired someone else to do it," said Parney, and this led Lancaster JetHawks assistant general manager Will Thornhill to share his team's solution. Let the kids do it.
Really. This season, the JetHawks made announcements during the game that they were looking for debris-removers, and the first 100 kids whose parents signed a release to do so would then get to go on the field after the game in order to aid the clean-up cause. But in the off chance that free child labor isn't your thing, then Tulsa Drillers entertainment manager Justin Gorski had a different solution. His team pays church groups to do the fireworks clean-up, as part of larger-scale ballpark fundraising efforts.
And so it goes. Minor League employees deal with such minutiae on a year-long basis, and the Promotional Seminar represents one of the very few venues in which such discussions can be had on a large group basis. It's a valuable thing.
I Came, I Saw…
While in past years I have attended the Promotional Seminar strictly in reportorial observation mode, this season I had the chance to be a direct participant. On Tuesday I moderated a Group Therapy session entitled "If You Book Them, Will They Come: Which Touring Performers Increase Attendance and Why?," an intermittently lively conversation on bringing national acts to the ballpark. (Everyone from Zooperstars! to retired pro wrestlers to, of course, the aforementioned Duck Dynasty).
Then, on Thursday, I took to the Grand Ballroom stage and delivered a presentation entitled "I Came, I Saw, I Dressed Up Like a Racing Food Product." This 20-minute lecture, punctuated by cringe-inducing jokes that were as painful to listen to as they were to deliver, was a highlight reel of sorts as I spoke about the most interesting things I saw while visiting Minor League Ballparks during the 2013 season. Further analysis of these presentations as well as more pertinent and universal Promotional Seminar information will run on MiLB.com and Ben's Biz Blog next week
In the meantime -- thanks for reading, and farewell to the fine city of Louisville.