When it comes to engaging fans and setting goals, Minor League Baseball is thinking big -- 50 million, to be exact.
"How do you convince a portion of your fanbase to go to one more game or bring a friend to one game?" said Kurt Hunzeker, MiLB's vice president of marketing strategy and research. "If you think about 50 million fans by 2026, when I first said that two years ago people were like, 'Oh my gosh, we're at 41 [million] now.'"
The inspiration behind that goal? Simple math.
"If you just get five percent or so to go to one more game or convince a friend to go with them, that's a two percent increase in attendance," said Hunzeker, pointing to research that suggests the Minors welcome roughly 14.5 million unique attendees annually. "Then you get to 50 million kind of quickly. It's not hard."
To help reach that goal, MiLB has unveiled an all-encompassing marketing campaign called "It's Fun to be a Fan," which aims to revolutionize the way the Minor Leagues are promoted nationwide and beyond.
"As a marketer, I'm extraordinarily thankful and fortunate that all the heavy lifting has been done by the clubs for 116 years now, to the point where we have the creative license to try just about anything," Hunzeker said from his office at MiLB headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. "The one thing we've never done as a league office is support what the clubs are doing at the local level."
Having long operated primarily as an administrative body for the teams and leagues across its many classifications, Minor League Baseball has been steadily charting its own course as a unique entity. In 2012, the organization created Minor League Baseball Enterprises and its Project Brand initiative to identify ways to expand beyond team-generated local marketing as well as offer support and amplification for those messages.
"What we had to do in order to communicate to the commercial marketplace was do a deep dive into who we are and really what has driven the brand of Minor League Baseball all these years." Hunzeker said.
In that research, Hunzeker uncovered "It's Fun to be a Fan," a slogan used by Minor League Baseball in various publications and materials as far back as the 1960s and resurrected, in a limited capacity, from 2004-06.
"It's our true north," he said. "It's our version of Nike's 'Just Do It.' It encapsulates everything perfect about Minor League Baseball."
The Minor Leagues is far from being defined strictly by baseball. In some ways, it's as much about the fan experience at any given game than the on-field product. Prior to joining MiLB in 2015, Hunzeker worked for Rawlings, where company research showed families with children under 12 years old spend just two and a half innings actually watching a game they attend. That's a lot of time to fill with activity not between the foul lines.
In those other six-plus innings, fans across the Minors are laughing at dizzy bat races, watching video board challenges, cheering mascot dance contests, consuming one-of-kind concessions and much more. Hunzeker and his team started immersing themselves in what makes a night at a Minor League park one of the most unique experiences in sports. The result is the first stage of the It's Fun to be a Fan campaign, an advertising blitz showcasing some of fans' top reasons to support the Minors.
"We're getting guidance to clubs as part of this campaign, but I think as far as what fans will see different as part of this campaign is maybe seeing the scale of Minor League Baseball," Hunzeker said. "If you're in Greenville, South Carolina, you know what the Drive is doing. You love going to games, but maybe seeing what that ballpark looks like when you're in California or Texas or wherever will be like, 'Wow. I didn't realize.'"
Project Brand's first activation year was 2015 with two national corporate partners. That list is up to nine, and its focus is swinging to the fan.
"The commercial revenue side has been the focus the last two, three years," Hunzeker said. "Now 2017 is the start of this 10-year build-out of fan-specific initiatives to get to the 50-million attendee mark by 2026."
This season, MiLB will hone in on all the reasons why its fans love its product. Next year, it will begin rewarding them in ways it never has before. The 2018 season will bring the launch of a national rewards program as well as "club-specific extensions" of the campaign.
Fun to be a Fan isn't just about engaging the Minors' customers, however. It's also about cultivating the game's next generation. When Nationals star Bryce Harper wore a "Make Baseball Fun Again" hat last year, it struck a chord with Hunzeker and his group. Over 75 percent of Americans live in a market with Minor League Baseball. Hunzeker envisions a future in which baseball's biggest names, like Harper, get involved to draw fans to the Minor League circuits where they learned the ropes and spark youngsters to play the game and aspire to follow their path.
"I'll use Play Ball as a great example," Hunzeker said of MLB and USA Baseball's youth baseball and softball initiative. "You've got 30 teams at the Major League level, and you can blow the doors off it on Play Ball weekend. I can quintuple the number of teams instantly that activate Play Ball weekend because we have 160 markets. Having that scale, that is the [difference maker] from a dollars and cents standpoint in the commercial marketplace and the fan marketplace."
MiLB's new campaign also aims to tap into micro-markets within fanbases by, for example, aiding teams in their outreach to local Latino and Asian fans.
"There is so much potential in just looking at what your market is," Hunzeker said. "If you're just focusing in on what is loosely termed as the 'general market' stuff, you might be ignoring 15 percent of your marketplace."
It all adds up to the first comprehensive and most ambitious marketing plan in the history of the Minor Leagues and one that keeps Hunzeker's lofty attendance goal squarely in its sights.
"If you can capture a fractional percentage of that 15 percent or if you can capture two percent new fans from that community that's maybe being underserved right now, we get to 50 million fans quite quickly."