With a month to go before the start of the season, a team releases a promotions schedule highlighted by a schedule magnet giveaway, dollar hot dogs, a celebrity appearance, touring performers and a '70s theme night.
This should all sound very familiar to Minor League Baseball fans, but the above list of promotional endeavors isn't being staged by a Minor League franchise. Welcome to the 2013-14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights men's basketball campaign, which kicks off at the RAC (Rutgers Athletic Center) on Nov. 8.
Minor League Baseball's increasing influence on the Rutgers fan experience can largely be attributed to senior associate athletic director Geoff Brown, who, prior to being hired by the prestigious New Jersey university in January, spent nearly two decades working within the Minors. Most notably, Brown served as general manager of the Lakewood BlueClaws from the team's 2001 inception all the way through January of this year. The Jersey Shore-based ballclub led the South Atlantic League in attendance during each season in which Brown was at the helm, and now he's working to apply this promotional expertise to the world of Division I college athletics.
Though it was a difficult decision to leave the Minor Leagues behind, Brown was motivated by the desire to take on a new challenge and Rutgers in particular offered the opportunity to do just this. The university left the Big East Conference in 2012, spending this season as a temporary member of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) before making a much anticipated shift to the high-profile Big Ten in 2014.
"The Big Ten played a big part in [the decision], because in football especially that's such a big jump," said Brown in a phone interview Wednesday. "There's a lot of excitement for that, and from a time standpoint, I was glad to get here a year in advance so that we can get everything up to speed before next September."
The move to the Big Ten will result in loftier expectations for Rutgers' steadily ascendant football program, and this brings to the forefront the biggest difference between Brown's previous gig and his current one.
"One of the things that you notice right away is that everybody here cares about wins and losses. That really matters," said Brown, laughing. "[In Minor League Baseball] we always used to talk about how many people would leave the game not even knowing who won or where the team was in the standings. Here, that is definitely not the case."
That fundamental philosophical difference, combined with the vastly increased scale -- High Point Solutions Stadium holds approximately 10 times as many people as Lakewood's FirstEnergy Park -- means that absurd in-game spectacles will be in short supply. In other words, Rutgers fans shouldn't hold their breaths for BlueClaws staples such as the nightly "Pork Roll, Egg, and Cheese" mascot race.
"For now the focus is more on the game day experience -- the traffic, the concessions, the parking," said Brown. "We want to deal with those things first."
But nonetheless, there is more crossover potential between the Minors and college football than what meets the eye. Group theme nights now dot the football schedule -- honoring everyone from first responders to teachers to YMCA members - and the giveaway schedule is highlighted by that most time-honored of fan souvenirs. On Dec. 7, the first 5,000 fans in attendance receive a bobblehead of head coach Kyle Flood.
Basketball has provided Brown with a bit more promotional wriggle room.
"There are 18 men's [home] games and 15 women's games, so that's 33 opportunities to try out some things and see what works," he said, before moving on to a subject near and dear to every Minor League operator's heart. "And we just got a brand-new scoreboard. The RAC [Rutgers Athletic Center] had had the same scoreboard since '75 or '76, so we're going to let the new one soak in for the first few games and then throw in some other things."
Those other things include an increased commitment to young fans. Riffing on the Kid's Clubs that have become de riguer in the Minors, Brown instituted a "Junior Knights" club this summer. Membership is free, and perks include free tickets as well as the opportunity to be a ball boy or girl at select games. Also new is the "Post-Game Shoot-around," where young fans are invited on to the court to take foul shots.
"That's our version of Kids Run the Bases," said Brown. "We didn't invent it, but it's all based around that Minor League idea of 'How can we get kids on the field? How can we make this more special for them?'"
One of Brown's most memorable stunts thus far is the recurring "Dancing Usher," in which one of the team's out-of-costume mascot performers trades places with an usher during a timeout and proceeds to dance maniacally in front of the crowd.
"The first time we did it, it was in front of six thousand people, and he killed it!" said Brown. "It was so awesome to see all of the fans pointing at him. 'Look at that! Look at that!'"
"We did [the Dancing Usher] at a women's basketball game in February, and one of the assistant coaches came up to me in July and said 'Geoff, we were in the huddle and I couldn't pay attention because I was watching that kid!'" continued Brown, laughing. "It went over well, and now we'll see what else we can get away with. Can we get the refs to play along? Or the coaches? Some things will get shot down, but we'll keep asking."
The 2013 season marked the first time this century that Brown wasn't working for the BlueClaws, and at times he found himself missing his old gig. To an extent.
"I got used to having weekends off in the summer pretty quick. And this season Lakewood got smoked by rain, and it seemed like every Friday they had to put the tarp on," said Brown. "I didn't miss any of that. But I still went to five or seven games and tried to cause a commotion while I was there. [New general manager] Brandon [Marano] is doing a great job."
And it should go without saying that Brown wouldn't be in his current position if it wasn't for the experience he gained within the world of Minor League Baseball.
"[In the Minors] you get to see the operation from all sides, so when it comes time to move on you've already done so many different things," he said. "You've done merchandise, you've done promotions, you've done concessions, so you have a pretty good idea of how to tie it all together."