In Minor League Baseball, teams tend to market everything but the players.
This might sound like a self-defeating approach, but it makes perfect sense considering the reality of the business. Rosters are determined by Major League affiliates and are inherently unstable thanks to constant demotions, promotions, releases, injuries and trades.
So Minor League teams focus on what they can control -- the ballpark experience. Giveaway items, theme nights, creative concessions, cheap tickets and, of course, the mascot remain the constants amidst the ever-changing product on the field.
But there are exceptions to every rule. Sometimes an notable prospect generates so much fan -- and media -- interest that a team has no choice but to react. As the 2011 season approaches, the most prominent example of this can be found in Hagerstown, Md. On Opening Day, 18-year-old phenom Bryce Harper will be patrolling the outfield for the hometown Suns.
Welcome to 'Harpertown'
Selected by the Nationals with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, Harper is widely considered to be one of the premier prospects in all of baseball. And with Hagerstown located just 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., Harper's proximity to the parent club is sure to generate interest from fans throughout the area.
"It's a big-time positive for us. There has been a lot of buzz, not just in the local community but nationwide," said Suns president Bruce Quinn. "We're working quickly to develop promotions around him and get those 'Harper' Suns t-shirts ready."
An early indication of the Suns' approach can be found on the team's website, which features a press release announcing that Hagerstown will soon become "Harpertown." The club is planning sponsored promotions based around his on-field performance (i.e., "Win a fast food item after a Harper home run), and the prospect has become a big selling point within the ticketing department.
"We haven't offered individual game tickets yet, but there has been a noticeable upswing in season ticket sales. And [season ticket] retention is at 100 percent, a very good sign," said Quinn. "[Harper] is going to be here while it's still the school season, so we're putting together packages geared toward families, games that they'll be able to attend even while school is still going on."
Harper's arrival is especially fortuitous for the Suns, as 2011 marks the club's first season under new ownership. Last fall, Mandalay Entertainment sold the team to a locally connected group headed by Quinn. Fans showing up to see Harper may be swayed to come back after witnessing the way the club operates in this new regime.
"Hagerstown is a good baseball town, and we get loyal baseball fans here as well as those looking for family-oriented entertainment. We need to generate increased loyalty to the Suns by creating a better fan experience, and that's something we're really working on," said Quinn. "And one thing we're very conscious of is that we don't want to raise ticket prices. That was part of our gameplan before we heard that Bryce Harper was coming, and we're not going to change that."
Catch a shooting star
Should the Suns need any advice on how to handle the crush of publicity that greets a top prospect's arrival, they only need to look two rungs up the organizational ladder. Last season, Stephen Strasburg began his professional career as a member of the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. The highly regarded hurler made five starts for the Senators (three at home) before moving on to Triple-A Syracuse.
"Having Strasburg here was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but hopefully we'll get [Harper] next year. We asked [the Nationals] if they'd let us keep Strasburg all year, but they wouldn't even listen to me," said Senators general manager Randy Whitaker.
"At the time, there wasn't a whole lot we could do with it. We didn't know for sure that he would be here until just a few weeks before the season started," he continued. "But we were able to get some [Strasburg] merchandise out there, which was popular long after he left. ... And we also had him on the gameday programs and things like that."
But in some regards, the Senators had to engage in what Whitaker called "anti-marketing."
"It was a challenge getting [Strasburg] to and from the ballpark in a safe fashion, and then dealing with the backlash of thousands of fans who wanted his autograph," he said. "We had to devise ways for him to get from the clubhouse to the parking lot without being assaulted by autograph seekers. ... We've had plenty of decent prospects here in the past but no one who had ever presented that kind of risk."
Despite such logistical hassles, Strasburg's three early-season starts paid huge dividends for the Senators. Sellout crowds flocked to Harrisburg's Metro Bank Park, which had just undergone an all-encompassing multi-phased renovation project.
"It was a great scenario for us, because our situation was basically that we were opening up a new stadium in an existing market," said Whitaker, "and Strasburg injected urgency into the situation that hadn't been there before. He made fans want to get to the ballpark as soon as they could. And once they got here and saw that we had such a great facility, I'm sure it accelerated the frequency of their visits throughout the season."
Whether it's for five games or five months, the presence of a top prospect is likely to result in increased box office revenue. But teams can continue to benefit well after the player in question has solidified himself in the Major League lineup, simply by reminding fans that he had been there.
This is, in many ways, one of the most important selling points Minor League Baseball teams have: See the stars of tomorrow -- today!
Phil Wrye, assistant general manager of the Double-A Bowie Baysox, has often utilized this marketing approach. The Baysox have been a Baltimore Orioles affiliate since their 1993 inception, and prized players to recently pass through include pitchers Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta and catcher Matt Wieters. All have since been immortalized by the Baysox in the form of bobbleheads and other promotional items.
"In 18 years, a relatively short amount of time, we've had about 120 of our players make it to the Major Leagues," said Wrye. "So every year, there's a good chance that five or six of the players our fans are seeing are going to go on to the Orioles. That's a good marketing angle, especially because a lot of people need to be educated as to how things work in the Minor Leagues."
Indeed, the casual fan often has little understanding as to how Minor League clubs fit into the bigger picture.
"We tend to get a lot of phone calls where people are asking 'When are you holding tryouts?' or 'How do I apply to be a coach?'" said Wrye. "My line is that we're the Double-A affiliate of the Orioles, and we have no say when it comes to players, managers, coach and the trainer. They are all provided to us by the parent club, and the parent club has the ability to move them up, down and out as many times as they want.
"So when we're getting a big prospect, we try to spread the word as soon as we can," he continued. "We need to maximize the opportunity that the fans have to see that person play, because there is no tomorrow in Minor League Baseball."
But though the players might not be there tomorrow, there's one individual who always will.
"Sometimes in talking with businesses in the area, I'll be asked if part of their sponsorship could include players coming out and meeting the customers," said Whitaker. "I tell them, 'It's better if we bring the mascot. He's always the same.'"