This year's edition of the Baseball Winter Meetings (the 111th in history, for those keeping track at home), kicked off with what has become an established tradition -- the Bob Freitas Business Seminar.
The seminar is billed as an "idea-sharing opportunity dedicated to improving every aspect of a professional baseball organization," and well, that's just what it is. The morning portion features hour-long "breakout sessions," while the afternoon is dedicated to more freewheeling half-hour "Round Tables." It's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" way to spend the day, as during any given time slot at least five presentations are running concurrently. To help make sense of the chaos, the presentations are divided into five categories so that attendees (nearly all of whom are employed by Minor League Baseball teams) can choose the one that is most applicable to their area of expertise.
But what about me, a flies-by-the-seat-of-his-pants writer with no area of expertise whatsoever? To minimize the crippling inaction that sometimes accompanies an abundance of choice, I decided to only attend presentations related to the "Licensing and Merchandising" category. My justification for this decision was simply because Minor League Baseball teams unveiled a spate of new logos last month -- featuring everything from Sasquatch to ostriches to porcupines -- so why not attempt to get a better sense of the decision-making that goes into such endeavors?
What follows is a brief synopsis of what I learned, very little of which had anything to do with Sasquatches, ostriches or porcupines.
8:30-9:30 a.m. "Merchandising Tricks from the Music Industry" Presenters: Greg Hill and Michael Sloane
As opposed to virtually every other Freitas Seminar presenter, Hill and Sloane don't work within the world of Minor League Baseball. They make their living within Nashville's storied music industry, and the idea was that they would share music biz marketing tips that could be applied to the baseball industry. Sloane, who said he is in the business of "telling digital stories for a living," offered solid advice on how to turn customers into observers. But the early start time and generally low-key presentation style failed to energize an already quite soporific audience.
9:45-10:45 a.m. "Creating a Brand" Presenters: Bill Paperniak (general manager, Richmond Flying Squirrels) and Ben Rothrock (director of merchandising, Richmond Flying Squirrels) For that subset of Minor League fans that have followed recent re-branding dramas such as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Reading Fightin' Phillies, Paperniak and Rothrock's talk would have held great interest. The duo laid out the thinking behind their franchise's adoption of the irreverent "Flying Squirrels" name and then, in step-by-step fashion, detailed the ways in which they made it palatable to an initially skeptical audience. One of the primary takeaways from the talk was this: Take the brand beyond "just a name" by tying it in to every aspect of the operation. This philosophy has informed the team's slogan of "Have Funn -- Go Nuts" (the extra "n" is because "FUNN" was available as a team phone number) and even extended to the concession stands ("Squirrely Fries," anyone?)
At this point, the Freitas Seminar went on a several hour hiatus as attention shifted to the Opening Session and the Awards Luncheon (where once again I was snubbed in the as "best Minor League Baseball writer" due to that category's continued inability to exist). At 2:30 p.m. the action resumed within the vast confines of the Gaylord Opryland's Presidential Ballroom.
2:30-3 p.m. "2013 Retail Promotions & MLB Properties Q&A" Presenter: Hernan Tudela (account executive, MLB Properties) This was, without a doubt, the driest and most narrowly focused presentation that I witnessed, and in writing about it, I am taking Winter Meetings coverage to new heights -- or would that be depths -- of obscurity. Tudela simply introduced a new marketing initiative designed to increase sales of each team's annual baseball card set: Each set will contain a card offering team store discounts as well as an entry form to win a trip to the 2013 World Series. A narrowly focused Q&A soon ensued with queries such as "How can a short-season club engage in this promotion, as we don't get our team sets until August?" and "Many of the people who buy our team sets are collectors -- they won't open them anyway." (Okay, so that second one wasn't a question at all.)
3:05-3:35 p.m. "Using and Protecting MiLB Historic Marks" Presenter: Sandie Herbert (director of licensing, Minor League Baseball)
One hundred sixty Minor League teams are currently in existence, but that hefty number pales in comparison to the teams that once existed but no longer do. Herbert spoke about the ways in which Minor League Baseball is working to track down and license the logos of these historical entities, an endeavor with myriad benefits. This can help to generate revenue (look for licensed historical logos aplenty to be featured on an upcoming Nickelodeon show featuring "an eccentric, memorabilia collecting uncle") and also as a preemptive way to stop these defunct marks from being used by others. Herbert pointed out that sometimes the primary benefit of controlling the rights to an old logo is simply to make sure that it doesn't see the light of day (Atlanta Crackers, anyone?)
3:40-4:10 p.m. "Top Gameday & Non-Gameday Events That Any Stadium Can Host and Have a Major Impact in Your Community" Presenter: Mike Nutter (president, Fort Wayne TinCaps) As the (hilariously unwieldy) title of this presentation probably makes clear, the topics that Nutter discussed had nothing to do with my self-assigned topic of Licensing and Merchandising. This is because this presentation was in the "Community and Media Relations" category, and I attended it mistakenly ("fatigue" is the only excuse that I can offer). But nonetheless, Nutter offered a wide overview of creative events that, indeed, any stadium can host. His TinCaps staged a staggering 388 non-baseball events last year, everything from renting out rooms for business conferences to a half-marathon to having fans jump into a dumpster on the concourse filled with ice cold weather in the middle of February. (It was for charity -- it doesn't have to make sense!)
Stay tuned for more Winter Meetings coverage throughout the week. Tomorrow will feature journal updates from our quartet of PBEO Job Fair attendees as well as a dispatch from the annual Trade Show (whose opening reception is happening as I type this sentence. Oh, the sacrifices I make for my art.)
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.