I'm tired of hearing, "they will never buy tickets, they just aren't into baseball," "the game must be too slow for them," or "we just don't have what basketball has."
These are statements I heard as I began my career in baseball. Instead of listening to what my heart was telling me, I let the views of others keep me from speaking out. After two years with my current ballclub, two very forward-thinking owners approached me. They asked my thoughts on the state of minorities in the game of baseball. Their questions reinforced what my heart was telling me. It was then that I realized the need to take a strong look at baseball and the way the game is marketed to minorities.
The owners' questions were simple, "What would you do to change baseball's perception in the African-American community? How would you get more minorities involved?" At first glance, the answer seemed simple. So I set out to change the entire baseball world. It wasn't until after a failure or two that I realized a more strategic plan was needed.
Step 1: Goal Setting
When I first arrived in Charleston, only two percent of the RiverDogs' total attendance was comprised of minorities. The initial plan was to increase our minority attendance percentage incrementally. I set an attainable goal of two percent growth per season.
Step 2: Organic Growth
My first order of business was to find the 10 most influential minorities in the Charleston community and create a focus group. The hope was to educate and excite the group about the RiverDogs mission and goals. In turn, the group would aid in educating the community and make it easier to sell tickets. What I thought would be a goodwill opportunity for community leaders never reached its full potential. I concluded that the initial focus group's mission was too broad. A good idea, but not enough.
Step 3: Planned Growth
The focus group failure led me back to the drawing board. We needed a formal plan. We needed a structured framework to set the course for the RiverDogs, while still being able to navigate or adjust as we learned more. I drafted a Minority Marketing Plan focused on six segments of business: staffing/recruiting, advertising, promotions, sales, community involvement/customer service, and game presentation/stadium ambiance. Effectively managing these six critical areas allowed us to foster a climate of change. The vision is for people of any ethnic background to enjoy the atmosphere, feel a sense of inclusion, and have an urge to return to our ballpark. The mission is to provide excellence in customer service by indentifying with our fan base and reaching out further into minority communities.
From those key areas, we could set a plan of action to accomplish our mission. We began by looking hard at staffing, sales and advertising. In each of the areas, we concentrated on using alternative methods than we'd previously employed. Some examples:
In addition to posting jobs on a sports website, I contacted historically black colleges in the area and reached out directly to their students. What I found was that the majority of these students didn't know how to get into the business of baseball. Even more eye-opening was that some didn't know there is a business side to baseball.
We focused on educating the community. One of the most effective ways was through our radio campaign. The campaign commercials were informative, funny, and targeted. One commercial focused on past African-Americans players and their effect on the game. By voicing a commercial focused on fun and affordable family entertainment, we corrected the community misconception that African-Americans aren't welcomed at the stadium. Two young African-American males wrote the best commercial we have. I told them I need something fresh, new and outside the box. What I got was our own hip-hop jingle.
The radio commercials launched our promotion strategy. We began with promotional nights. Hip-Hop night, throwback jersey night and Negro League baseball day were all a success. The Negro League promotion was such a hit that it has grown into a two-day event; day one is focused on Charleston's rich history of African-Americans in baseball while day two pays homage to the great men who played in the Negro Leagues.
Using the promotional nights, we could partner with our local radio stations and target our demographic. Our local hip-hop and gospel station had never taken us seriously, until we made a sincere effort to target each station's demographic. In addition to our media relationships, we now had specific events to attract an untapped segment of potential sponsors. Since we began our Negro League baseball day promotion, we have had funeral homes, military branches and historically black colleges become sponsors.
In the same vein, one of the best methods of initially selling tickets was to link the sales with aiding charity organization. Our first successful experience benefitted a local minority scholarship and our homeless shelter. The positive recognition we received was priceless. By earning buy-in with the community through our sincere marketing and outreach efforts, new avenues began and continue to be opening up for our organization.
Once we were on the right track, the same methods were applied to our community involvement/customer service and game presentation.
Community involvement/customer service
I sought out every predominately African-American school, neighborhood association, barbershop and church. I asked them if I could make a presentation and give away some team merchandise. What developed were school and community tours. The tours were sponsored. It gave us access to large groups, where I had the opportunity to tell our story and show that we care about our community. I then went back to each group and sold group tickets. Each year, the number of minority groups attending our games continues to grow.
I knew the one thing that would help us keep our newfound fans would be the game's presentation. Traditionally, the atmosphere was not very inclusive to minorities. There was no diversity in the music or the between innings activities at games. I wanted to make sure we catered to everyone, so I asked that we play a mix of music. Every song was to come from a different genre. The music alone created an immediate and noticeable change in the game's presentation.
Since we implemented the marketing plan, we have added or changed something about our game presentation each season. A great example from last season is the live DJ playing each Thursday night game. It has turned our outdoor pub area into a club atmosphere, drawing yet another population segment to our games.
Over these last seven years, we have seen changes previously unimaginable. The RiverDogs logo is known everywhere I go. I get a "RiverDogs in the house" every time I enter the barbershop. I love it when people ask, "When do tickets go on sale?" or "Do you have the new gear out yet?" While it makes me feel good to see African-Americans walking up and buying tickets, I know that our 10-percent minority attendance still needs to grow. It's my hope that Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball will put more emphasis on diversifying the game I love so much.