Looking back, thinking forward in Dallas

Minor League Baseball focusing on future at Winter Meetings

The Cubs' Bryan LaHair received kudos on the Winter Meetings' first day. (Minor League Baseball)

By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | December 5, 2011 2:48 PM

DALLAS -- The opening session of the 2011 Winter Meetings took place within the Stemmons Ballroom of the Dallas Hilton Anatole Hotel, a location that Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner described as "hallowed ground" for Minor League Baseball.

It was here that, nearly 20 years ago, the constitutional bylaws of Minor League Baseball were written under O'Conner's predecessor Mike Moore. This resulted in a much-needed streamlining and modernization of the industry, one that helped pave the way for the ballpark boom, national licensing programs and increased fan interest that followed. A similarly forward-thinking spirit dominated Monday's proceedings, with Minor League Baseball's internet presence emerging as the area of primary focus.

During his opening session speech, O'Conner remarked that "in the last 20 years, nothing has been more exciting or promising for Minor League Baseball than our venture into the internet and the development of BIRCO property."

BIRCO, an acronym for the "Baseball Internet Rights Company," is a wholly owned subsidiary that manages digital media rights for all affiliated leagues and nearly all of the 160 clubs contained therein. This has helped to usher in a new era of Minor League Baseball, one that has changed everything from the way tickets and merchandise are sold to the way the game is disseminated, discussed and consumed.

All BIRCO services are provided by Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), and talks are underway to extend this agreement. O'Conner was followed on the podium by MLBAM president and CEO Bob Bowman, who drew analogies between the evolution of MLBAM and that of BIRCO. It entails taking risks and staying the course, because there simply is no going back to the way things were.

"My two children are teenagers now. They've never bought a newspaper and never will," said Bowman. "There won't be a return to those days."

Serve and protect

At the ensuing Bob Freitas Business Seminar, such issues were discussed on a more detailed level as team executives shared ideas on how to best engage with their fan bases online. In a presentation entitled "How to Create a Social Media Plan," Trenton Thunder general manager Will Smith suggested sharing as many ballpark perspectives as possible, a strategy that includes soliciting guest blog posts from ushers and groundskeepers as well as tweeting pictures of the daily lineup card. And why stop there?

"We went so far as to tweet pictures from the concession stand of the funnel cake being made," said Smith. "Why not?"

A similarly proactive fan approach was advocated by Tulsa Drillers director of marketing Rob Gardenhire, who monitors Twitter mentions of his team and ballpark throughout every ballgame. He relayed a story of delivering a complimentary hot dog to the seat of a fan who had complained via Twitter that hers was cold.

"It's a great example of taking a negative situation and turning it into a positive," he said.

Technological threats can be far more insidious than complaints over cold food, though. In his opening session speech, Minor League Baseball vice president Stan Brand elucidated that one of the biggest threats to the industry is "foreign-based and foreign-operated websites that pirate our copyrighted works and intellectual property, in effect stealing our products and the revenue they generate and diminishing our brands."

To this end, Brand advocated widespread industry support for the "Stop Online Piracy Act." This legislation, currently moving through Congress, calls for felony penalties to be levied toward those who violate online copyright law.

He who controls the past controls the future

But despite all the emphasis on technological adaptation and innovation during Day 1 of the Winter Meetings, teams shouldn't forget their roots. This was the message delivered by Visalia Rawhide director of broadcasting Donny Baarns, who gave a Freitas seminar presentation entitled "How History Can Strengthen Your Club's Brand."

Baarns, who has authored a book on Visalia's 65-year professional baseball history, explained the benefits of a history-minded approach are manifold. His club has spruced up unsightly areas of the stadium with historical displays, re-engaged with sponsors found in old gameday programs and launched marketing campaigns emphasizing the team's decades-long association with the community.

Neglecting a franchise's history "is like walking into a four-star restaurant with a clothespin on your nose," said Baarns.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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