Like a taut pennant race that isn't determined until the last day of the season, the vote for MiLB.com's inaugural Minor League Promotion of the Year Award came down to the wire.
If you'll please pardon the pun, the end result was nothing short of miraculous.
Coming in first place, with an impressive 28 percent of the vote, was the Fort Myers Miracle's "Billy Donovan Night." In this much-lauded promotional extravaganza, the Florida State League franchise paid tribute to the painfully indecisive Florida Gators basketball coach (on June 1, Donovan signed a massive contract with the NBA's Orlando Magic, but backed out one day later in order to return to the University of Florida).
On "Billy Donovan Night," the Miracle did everything short of handing out flip flops to fans as they walked through the turnstiles. But at the heart of the evening was this little nugget of genius -- any fan who had second thoughts about attending the game was given the opportunity to negotiate out of their ticket purchase by consulting with a lawyer and then (in certain cases) shooting a basketball through a hoop.
"When the Donovan story broke, it was just dominating the sports headlines, especially here in Florida," said Andrew Seymour, the Miracle's assistant general manager and promotions director. "We knew we had to do something with it, but we lacked a good hook. Then one of the guys on our staff, Gary Sharp, who had just got back from his honeymoon, suggested that we have fans negotiate their ticket purchase.
"It was like -- Bam! -- there it is. There's our hook. For us, the honeymoon continued. We put out a teaser about the promo, and the Associated Press picked it up and ran a story. After that, everybody jumped on it. All of this occurred during a period when there wasn't much happening in the sports world, so the timing worked out great."
Indeed, the Miracle's unorthodox promotion received prominent local and national media coverage, and resulted in a crowd that was more than double the team's Wednesday night average. All in all, it was a fitting stunt for a franchise with ties to the most legendary name in the world of sports promotions.
"The owner and CEO of our club is Mike Veeck, he's the guy that drives the wagon," said Seymour, who speaks with the caffeinated zeal of one who is truly dedicated to his job. "We just try to follow in his footsteps and help carry on the family legacy. For us to be able to do that, we just have to keep raising the bar."
Another club that keeps raising the bar in the world of Minor League promotions is the Pacific Coast League's Portland Beavers, whose Bob L. Head Bobblehead Giveaway overcame a slow start in the poll and finished with 27 percent of the vote (a handful of votes behind Fort Myers). Like Billy Donovan Night, the Bob L. Head bobblehead giveaway rose from humble origins to eventually become the beneficiary of nationwide media attention.
"Our director of ticket sales, Ben Hoel, first brought up the idea of doing a Bob L. Head bobblehead at one of our offseason promotional summits, where no idea is too ridiculous," explained Beavers assistant general manager Chris Metz. "We mulled it over for a few seasons, but it never really took off. But this past offseason we had the idea to do a nationwide search for guys with the name of Bob L. Head. That really gave it an extra layer, and it took off from there."
Eventually, the Beavers narrowed their search down to three finalists, and held an online vote to see which Mr. Bob L. Head should be honored with his own bobblehead doll. The eventual winner was Mr. Leroy Robert Head of Iowa, who received over 50 percent of the nearly 30,000 votes cast. Accordingly, the first 2,000 fans to arrive at Portland's PGE Park on August 18 received a bobblehead doll bearing the likeness of this illustrious individual (who, along with the other two finalists, was in attendance at the ballpark on this special night).
"The line around the stadium that evening was just amazing," said Metz. "We have a real creative staff here, and it took a real group effort to pull this off. There are other things in town here, from the NBA to college football, so we have to do everything we can to keep people talking about our team."
The second runner-up in the Promotion of the Year poll (and, out of respect for space considerations, the last I'll mention) were the Fresno Grizzlies. The San Francisco Giants affiliate received 23 percent of the vote for its "Famous Fan Vote," in which the club gave its fans the opportunity to vote for which Fresno native they'd like to see honored at the ballpark.
"Last year, our biggest promo was 'Kevin Federline Night.' He's a Fresno native, and we were able to get very clever and witty with a night like that," said Scott Carter, the Grizzlies' vice president of marketing. "So, this past offseason, we went back to that and thought of ways in which we could embellish and improve upon it. Eventually, we realized that we could really keep the fans connected by giving them a say in what was going on."
After Cher beat out the likes of Growing Pains mom Joanna Kerns and actor-turned-mayor Alan Autry in an online vote, the Grizzlies ace promotional staff had one week to turn around and stage an elaborate game-long tribute in her honor.
"It was a challenge to our staff to put something together within such a small window of time, but I think the fans enjoyed being involved in the creative process, and getting a glimpse of what it's like to put on a show," said Carter.
"This was one of those promotions where the idea just fell in our lap, and it didn't require much thinking. A light bulb just went off, and we ran with it. Oftentimes, things like that are what end up working out the best."