Minor League Baseball is, essentially, a collection of local businesses. Each of its 160 teams position themselves as the proverbial "front porch" of the community in which they operate, with success contingent upon the ability to effectively engage with the local market via sponsorships, philanthropic efforts, and of course, ticket sales.
But the collective power of these myriad local businesses should not be underestimated. Minor League Baseball draws over 40 million fans to its ballparks each season, and as such is one of the most prevalent and affordable family entertainment options to be found in America. How, then, to best tell this story?
Enter Project Brand.
Boasting the tagline "160 Teams, One Brand," Project Brand represents Minor League Baseball's most ambitious attempt to position itself as a singularly unique nationwide sports entity. The initiative was first introduced at last week's Baseball Winter Meetings in Nashville during Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner's annual Opening Session speech. O'Conner did not mince words or spare the lofty rhetoric, calling Project Brand nothing less than Minor League Baseball's "biggest opportunity to date."
"Our future is at its brightest this very moment," stated O'Conner. "But we have to learn from our past and realize we are better as one -- one unit, one organization and one force that harnesses its resources and lifts even the weakest teams to greater heights."
Project Brand would accomplish this, continued O'Conner, via its emphasis on Minor League Baseball as a versatile, creative and compelling national brand.
"We owe the brand more. We owe ourselves more," he said. "It is time for a change."
A cohesive vision
The initiative now known as Project Brand began in earnest this past April, when O'Conner formed an ad hoc committee consisting of a quartet of Minor League team owners: Tom Dickson (Lansing Lugnuts, Montgomery Biscuits), Chuck Greenberg (State College Spikes, Myrtle Beach Pelicans), Craig Brown (Greenville Drive) and Pat Filippone (Delmarva Shorebirds, Everett AquaSox, Stockton Ports). The committee soon convened in Chicago, along with O'Conner and Minor League Baseball business development vice president Tina Gust, to flesh out the concept.
"We spent the day listening to everyone's vision regarding what we were doing and what we were capable of, and were delighted to find that we were on the same page," said Filippone, reached by phone Wednesday morning. "This is a chance to do something transformational for the industry -- there is so much fragmentation within the media and our product offers a great platform. We need to develop partnerships with large companies who may be having trouble reaching their demographic. Minor League Baseball has a compelling story to tell to this country, and we think that is something that is really going to resonate with large companies."
And what is the story that Minor League Baseball wants to tell?
"Each team tells the story of its town and the people who live, work and play in those towns. We're an integral part of the community," said Filippone. "The story can be different things to different people, but it's always going to center around the energy, passion and fun that resides within the community."
The relaxed pace of Minor League Baseball in combination with its family-oriented nature should result in a plethora of unique national marketing opportunities. Much is to be determined regarding what those could be, but Filippone envisions "unique, in-park, content-driven opportunities" that will go above and beyond standard ballpark branding such as outfield billboards and game program inserts.
"Right now we're being prudent, but we've got to think big and we've got to think different," he said.
A new way of doing things
For the past two decades, Minor League Baseball has operated a national marketing program out of its headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla. While this program has been effective, Filippone characterizes it as more of a bottom-up, locally based approach. In essence, companies interested in advertising in a specific region of the country would work with Minor League Baseball in establishing partnerships with teams in that particular region.
"The program has performed well but it's not truly national in nature, so we can't really match what other leagues are doing," elaborated Filippone. "Project Brand is top down, there's no picking and choosing involved. It's something that will be supported in 160 markets."
Upon the conclusion of O'Conner's Opening Session speech, he and his Project Brand committee members devoted much of their time in Nashville extolling the virtue of the initiative to their peers. The program will be funded by the teams themselves, via what Filippone dubs "an internal investment."
"We're asking clubs to invest in this, and have a target number that we need to get the project started and move forward," said Filippone. "We've been very conservative with our projections, but plan to be self-sustaining within a short amount of time.
"The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive," he continued. "The passion that we're selling this with this is real, and people can feel that. Nothing [in this industry] is ever going to get 100 percent agreement, and if it does, then you're not pushing hard enough. But the camaraderie of our owners and operators is such that we'll figure it all out and move forward."
The next step in the process is hire a chief marketing officer, an individual who serves as the point person for the entire Project Brand initiative. That, in conjunction with the committee's ongoing public relations efforts within the industry, should set the stage for 2014 and beyond. It won't always be a smooth process and much remains to be determined, but Minor League Baseball is clearly an industry that will continue to adapt and evolve.
"It is time for a change. And change takes the courage to feel uncomfortable," said O'Conner during his Opening Session speech. "It is time for us to get out of our comfort zone and capitalize on the incredible opportunity before us."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.