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In the eyes of the Lake Elsinore Storm05/20/2011 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com
In Lake Elsinore, the eyes have legs.
The Southern California community of approximately 50,000 people is home to the Storm, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the San Diego Padres. Despite competing in a modestly sized market, the team's iconic eye logo (a narrowed pair of glowing eyes, connected by a furrowed brow and set against a black background) has consistently ranked among the top-selling in all of Minor League Baseball.
Even if you've never heard of the Storm (or the California League, or even Minor League Baseball) chances are that you've seen someone sporting their gear. The team's logo has gone nationwide, sported by youth teams across the country as well as image-conscious individuals intent on keeping their eyes on you as you keep your eye on them.
Storm president Dave Oster joined the Storm front office in 2000, when the team's logo featured a close-but-no-cigar variation of the current mark: the eyes were embedded into a literal storm cloud. This necessitated a bit of surgery.
"We pulled the eyes out and decided to make them our main feature," said Oster.
And indeed they have. Home ballpark The Diamond (city-owned, but operated by the team) is heavily branded with the logo -- behind home plate, on the wall behind the dugouts, on the men's room floor, above the concession items, on the kid's zone inflatable and innumerable other ballpark fixtures.
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While giving me a tour of the ballpark, general manager Chris Jones remarked that "Yeah, we slap that logo on just about everything." Close inspection bears that out, as throughout the evening I went to spot the eyes on everything from paper towel dispensers to elevator buttons.
Surely this has helped the Storm logo become a strong seller in the community and among Cal League baseball fans, but Oster attributes the logo's tremendous success to what initially seems like an unlikely reason: youth baseball. After removing the eyes from the storm cloud, the team started a local Little League program.
"We would sponsor area teams and donate Storm gear to them," said Oster. "But in exchange, they had to become a Storm team."
Approximately 30 teams participated initially, a number that grew to 100 by the next year as word of mouth spread. Local traveling teams began to spread the Storm look to heretofore untapped markets, and Oster estimates that more than 400 teams nationwide now suit up as the Storm.
"It was definitely a grassroots, word-of mouth thing," said Oster. "Especially because when we started the program, most people involved with Little Leagues didn't know that their team could be named after a Minor League team. It was a totally new idea to them.
"We don't make a whole lot of money off of the Little League program itself," he continued. "But once the kids are wearing the uniform, then maybe Mom and Dad want a hat, and a pullover, and it just spreads from there."
Having their cake and eating it too
With the logo thus established, the Storm are doing everything they can to expand its presence. Oster remarked that it has come to symbolize an "active lifestyle," and that "if you want it to stand for baseball, it can. But it can stand for other things too."
A visit to the Storm's team store illustrates this approach. Overseen by merchandise manager Donna Grunow, it features a cornucopia of products that have little, if any, connection to Minor League Baseball. Inventory includes fitted hats in Lakers and Chargers colors as well as flip flops, bathing suits, board shorts and t-shirts geared toward what Grunow calls "the X-Games crowd."
The team has even established its own clothing line, called "Storm Thredz," in order to market to the non-baseball crowd. A visit to the Storm Thredz website gives no indication of the product's Minor League roots. Clicking on the site's "team" section links not to the Storm's homepage but instead to a promotional blurb explaining that professional athletes such as Johnny Damon wear Storm Thredz clothing, as well as "entertainers like Wild N Out's Nick Cannon, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, and DJ Paul from Three 6 Mafia."
This willful disconnect between team and apparel is rare (if not unprecedented) in the world of Minor League Baseball and will most likely only continue to grow. Storm Thredz apparel is now being sold on the UC San Diego campus and Pangea clothing stores, and the look may soon spread into the world of Minor League hockey. Storm managing owner Gary Jacobs recently bought the Las Vegas Wranglers of the East Coast Hockey League, and Oster mentioned that plans are in the works to adopt the Storm logo to that franchise. This would help expand the brand into the Vegas market, not just among hockey fans but among those receptive to the active lifestyle look associated with Storm Thredz in general.
The success of the Storm logo is indicative of the team's overall approach, which is to think outside the box. The team has generated plenty of publicity for itself in recent years with irreverent and edgy promotions, from the distribution of "Subtle Butt" flatulence neutralizers on All-You-Can-Eat Night to the widely-publicized Sheen-Co De Mayo promotion that occurred earlier this month (which included Charlie Sheen bobbleheads, Tiger Blood cocktails, and the retirement of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn's No. 99 jersey).
"We have an ownership group that makes it really easy for us to push the envelope," said Jones. "We'll come up with an idea, and they'll say 'Let's do it!' or even 'How can we make it even stupider?' But we do a lot of good -- it's not all about being cutting-edge," he continued. "Our reading program now reaches more than 70,000 students, and we're taking part in 110 school assemblies each year."
The combination of community-oriented and outside-the-box thinking is paying dividends. Consistently strong numbers at the gate (the team, as usual, led the California League in attendance last season) combined with an enduring and endlessly adaptable logo have led to one of Minor League Baseball's biggest success stories.
Clearly, the eyes have it.