Note: This is the first in a series of articles detailing the conception, evolution and execution of a new Charleston RiverDogs promotion.
It's an honor to be nominated, sure. But the Charleston RiverDogs wanted to leave Des Moines with a Golden Bobblehead.
Golden Bobbleheads are awarded at the conclusion of the Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar, an annual idea-sharing event attended by Minor League Baseball executives from around the country. This year's iteration took place in Des Moines, Iowa, from Sept. 24-27; next season the event will change its name to the Innovators Summit and be held in El Paso, Texas.
The RiverDogs, Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees, were among six finalists in the Golden Bobblehead category of "Best Theme Night." But when the winner was announced on the final night of the Promo Seminar, it was the Lansing Lugnuts who went home with the prize. The voters -- all of them Promotional Seminar attendees -- ultimately thought that the Lugnuts' celebration of Backyard Baseball was a more viable and entertaining theme night than the RiverDogs' "Joseph P. Reilly and the Amazing Technicolor Ballpark." On that mid-April evening, the RiverDogs handed out packets of colored corn starch and staged one of the messiest and most memorable seventh-inning stretches in Minor League history.
Video: Re-live the magic of Color Night from this year!
Nate Kurant, RiverDogs director of promotions, said his team's colorful endeavor was part of a larger promotional strategy, one that emphasizes creating memories above all else.
"We do all the things you're supposed to do with the T-shirts and the bobbleheads," said Kurant, speaking on the penultimate day of the seminar. "But you don't necessarily go home and remember a bobblehead or a T-shirt; you remember catching a foul ball or the first time you did this, that or the other. ... When you look to grow a fan, you can grow a fan linearly, but if you do something experiential, it puts the root so much deeper. That's why people go to rock concerts when they have the album. You want to be a part of it. And that's something you can't replicate in any other way."
The Promotional Seminar gives front-office executives like Kurant the chance to share philosophies, celebrate successes and reflect on failures. It's simultaneously a debriefing on the season that was, and a preparation for the season to come.
And Kurant, for his part, was already thinking about 2019. Specifically, he wanted to come up with a promotion that follows in the footsteps of "Color Night" and 2017's "Silly String Night" -- something unique and experiential that could connect with the local fan base, national media and, come next September, Golden Bobblehead voters.
"I had an idea matriculating ahead of [the Promo Seminar], but seeing and hearing how other people have done certain things has just kind of reinforced it," Kurant said. "We've got to at least try, but right now it's beyond the scope of what I can control."
Kurant's observation illustrates the extent to which planning a Minor League promotion is a process, contingent not only on creative ideas but by the approval of bosses, co-workers, sponsors and, ultimately, fans.
"I don't even know if it's cool. It's cool, but I don't know if it's, like ... I don't know," said Kurant, clearly struggling with the viability of his mysterious new promotional idea. "But, I mean, whatever. We have a lot of bad ideas."
Clearly, more matriculation was needed. In the meantime, Kurant was enjoying his third Promotional Seminar as a member of the RiverDogs' front office.
"The first seminar [I attended] was really fun because it gave me, at least, context," he said. "Like, 'Oh, cool, you do that, too!' or 'Oh, you messed up there, too!' ... And I don't know how to say it where it doesn't sound cheesy, but sometimes this feels like you are a grandparent at a family reunion. Pride and happiness, and so cool to see everyone [in the industry] engaging. It's so fun and so energizing."
Although the RiverDogs didn't go home with a Golden Bobblehead, the "energizing" feeling of the Promotional Seminar appears to have carried over in October. Speaking by phone after the seminar, Kurant expressed gratitude that several members of the RiverDogs sales staff had also attended, allowing them to "see a different side of Minor League Baseball." He also expressed satisfaction with his Golden Bobblehead presentation, which featured a dramatic "Color Night" re-enactment.
Hope springs eternal for the RiverDogs and Kurant, who continues to speak cryptically of his next big promotional idea, hoping that he and his co-workers can shepherd it into existence.
"Right now, it almost feels like we're aiming too low. It's simple as far as the concept, but it has the potential to be big," he said. "We've still got to do some work."