This past February, the Fresno Grizzlies issued the following declaration: "If a team wants to be called the Zamunda Lions, this is a free country, you should respect their wishes and call the Fresno Grizzlies the Zamunda Lions on June 21."
This past February, the Fresno Grizzlies issued the following declaration:
"If a team wants to be called the Zamunda Lions, this is a free country, you should respect their wishes and call the Fresno Grizzlies the Zamunda Lions on June 21."
This past Thursday, wishes were respected and the team did indeed suit up as the Zamunda Lions. It was all part of the Houston Triple-A affiliate's "Coming to Fresno" promotion, an extensive homage to the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America. In that film, Eddie Murphy plays Akeem Joffer, the crown prince of the fictional African country Zamunda.
The Grizzlies have made a habit of such off-the-beaten-path cinematic tributes in recent years, celebrating both The Three Amigos and Good Burger during the 2016 season.
"Coming to Fresno" was inspired, in part, by the Grizzlies' Good Burger promo. During that July 2016 endeavor, the team branded one of their Chukchansi Park concession stands as "Grizz Burger" and sold food inspired by the film. Grizzlies director of marketing Sam Hansen thought the same concept could be applied to Coming to America, as a fast-food chain named McDowell's features prominently.
"We started with the process in 2016 and were gonna do ["Coming to Fresno"] in 2017 because we got the idea after Good Burger," he said. "But I was a little leery, because you don't want to fall in love with your own ideas. Like, I love salt and vinegar potato chips but Fresno is definitely a Flamin' Hot Cheetos market. I didn't want to assume that because Coming to America is my favorite movie that everyone else likes it. I didn't know how it would go over here."
After seeing a sold-out screening of Coming to America at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in September 2017, Hansen became convinced of the promotion's viability. It was announced in February of 2018, with many of its signature elements already in place. These included the Zamunda Lions theme uniforms and, yes, Big Micks and fries at the McDowell's concession stand.
"The themed food part, I think that's the next frontier in Minor League Baseball," said Hansen. "I think all of us, as teams, do well using the palette of the uniforms to get creative, and then with the merchandise using the team store as a place to capitalize. But I don't know if a lot of teams are taking advantage of the food options. ... We did it all in-house, and did the McDowell's packaging using the same template as Good Burger."
At a separate concession stand, the Grizzlies offered a drink called "Sexual Chocolate." This so-called "adult slushy," consisting of Kahlua, chocolate milk and Hennessey, referenced a band by that name featured in the film. A local cover band performed under the "Sexual Chocolate" moniker at Chukchansi Park that evening, and one of the team's game day employees spent the evening in character as lead singer Randy Watson.
"We didn't want [Sexual Chocolate] in the team store, so we put that logo on cups for an adult drink so it wouldn't be sold next to kid's stuff," said Hansen.
One item that was available in the team store, alongside a litany of Zamunda Lions-themed merchandise, was Sole Glo sneaker cleaner. This was a riff on the film's "Soul Glow" hair product, which Hansen didn't think was marketable in the year 2018 since "there aren't many people still wearing Jheri curl." The Grizzlies announced their version of Soul Glow via an ad featuring mascot Parker, parodying the film's barber shop scene.
And then, of course, there were the Zamunda Lions uniforms and the accompanying merchandise sold in the team store. Like the McDowell's packaging, these were designed in-house. Referencing a famous line uttered by King Jaffe Joffer in the film, the team informed fans that the uniforms would not be velvet because "velvet would be a little too robust for the players to wear in the mid-June Central California heat."
It all added up to a memorable night for the Fresno Grizzlies, who basked in the local and national attention that the promotion received.
"When it comes to pop culture, we try to find things that other teams won't do or are less obvious. But we're trying to get the pulse of Fresno first, and if it gets national appeal that's a plus," said Hansen. "Now we just gotta come up with something for next year."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter