When it comes to the state of Minor League Baseball in Omaha, now is the calm after the Storm.
The previous 12 months have certainly been eventful. Omaha's longtime Pacific Coast League franchise was the only affiliated team to move to a new stadium in 2011, as the outsized environs of historic Rosenblatt Stadium were swapped for the far more intimate Werner Park.
This transition was accompanied by a total identity overhaul, with the longstanding "Royals" name and logo jettisoned in favor of the far more idiosyncratic "Storm Chasers." The team increased its attendance in 2011 (despite, or perhaps because of, playing in a facility with less than half the capacity) and merchandise sales were markedly improved as well.
A fitting exclamation mark to these major developments was the Storm Chasers' on-field success. This was a talent-laden club which won the PCL championship even after many of the primary prospects (Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas among them) got the call to parent club Kansas City. That affiliation, 43 seasons strong, was just about the only thing that stayed constant amidst this year of change.
What it all amounted to, says newly minted Storm Chasers president Martie Cordaro, was "the perfect storm."
Given the ever-growing aura of success now surrounding the franchise, it's easy to forget that last year's announcement of the new name and logo didn't exactly go smoothly. Like much of the Midwest, Omaha boasts an inherently tradition-bound and conservative fan base, so the transition to a decidedly non-traditional name and defiantly cartoonish logo (designed by industry stalwarts Plan B Branding) didn't sit well with many of the region's baseball supporters.
The "Storm Chasers" name was first announced on Nov. 15, and the sentiments that soon accrued on local news websites and the team's own Facebook page were overwhelmingly against the switch. "Okay, funny practical joke," went a typical comment on the Omaha World-Herald story announcing the switch. "Now what is the real name of the baseball team?"
The heartland discontent soon went national, with sports blog Deadspin calling the name change "pathetically endearing, but mostly just pathetic" and ESPN columnist Rob Neyer dashing off a missive with the searing title of "Omaha Joins the Ranks of the Embarrassing."
Despite this less-than-welcoming reaction, Cordaro and his staff stuck to their guns, their confidence bolstered by focus group research as well as their own professional experiences.
Omaha's identity shift was in line with a long-running and seemingly inexorable industry trend, in which "traditional" names that referenced the parent club were tossed in favor of irreverent and often locally specific monikers. More than 100 teams have done just this over the past two decades. The Storm Chasers compete against PCL entities such as the Isotopes, Bees, Sounds, Aces and River Cats, to name just a few.
"Minor League Baseball is now looked upon as an innovative industry, and we were coming from a position of confidence," said Cordaro, who was promoted to president after Alan Stein announced his retirement last month. "Alan had success in Lexington and had consulted for a variety of teams. ... I myself had dealt with a new situation in Jackson [Miss.], went on to work in Birmingham, and then [Battle Creek] Michigan before coming here. We as a staff had to trust our own histories and experience, and all of the things we had learned from so many great operators along the way."
"Storm Chasers" might not bring any specific baseball connotations to mind, but the name does reference Omaha's reputation as the "extreme weather capital of the country."
"There actually is something in Nebraska that's talked about more than Husker football, and that's the weather. So to have a name that referenced the weather seemed like a natural fit" said Cordaro. "But when it came to designing the logo with Plan B Branding, we felt it was very important -- almost imperative -- to make sure that we acknowledged our relationship with Kansas City. Keeping the same blue color that we always had was very important to us from a historical perspective."
Though the team remained true to the hue, "Storm Chasers" opened up a world of marketing and merchandising possibilities that wouldn't have been possible with the staid monarchical Royals moniker. The same week that the announcement was made, the Weather Channel got in touch and morning show host Mike Bettes did a live interview with Cordaro. (Bettes and crew then came out to Omaha to cover the Storm Chasers' Opening Day. In a fitting twist, the game was postponed due to stormy conditions.)
And that wasn't the only basic cable coverage the team received. Sean Casey, host of the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers, visited Werner Park later in the season and helped stage a benefit for victims of the tornado that ravaged Joplin, Mo.
On the local level, the Storm Chasers have partnered with local meteorology departments and weather forecasters and have also developed school programs that teach concepts related to Nebraska's oft-turbulent atmospheric conditions. Such initiatives are complemented by aspects of the Werner Park experience that highlight and expand upon the overall theme (such as the "Storm Front" gift shop and the "Down Draft" bar in left field).
Less room, more growth
The identity overhaul went hand-in-hand with a change in venue, as after four decades at downtown Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium the team relocated to the corn fields of Papillon, Neb. (situated about 15 minutes from Omaha, in comparatively undeveloped Sarpy County).
"I think that the ballpark change was just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the name change," noted Cordaro. "The only difference was that with the ballpark people had four years to get ready."
And a lot of people needed the time. Rosenblatt Stadium, named after a former Omaha mayor who was instrumental in getting the facility built, was a community institution that not only hosted the O-Royals but the annual College World Series as well. Its importance as a storehouse of generation-spanning memories cannot (and should not) be overlooked, but the stadium's outsized capacity -- a necessity due to the attendance demands of the College World Series -- and '40s-era architecture put the O-Royals at a significant disadvantage. Amenities were few, and even large crowds by Triple-A standards could seem paltry and disconnected within Rosenblatt's vast expanses of terrain. Werner Park, on the other hand, features just 6,434 seats and a total capacity of 9,023 (the lowest among all 30 Triple-A teams).
Werner Park includes a 360-degree concourse, grass berm seating, open concession areas, party decks and picnic pavilions. Over the last 20 years, such features have become common, as nearly 75 percent of the 160 affiliated teams opened new facilities during this time (a period, now coming to an end, that has aptly been described as professional baseball's "ballpark boom.") But what was standard in the industry was new to the fans of Omaha.
"When people walk in, the whole ballpark just opens up to them. You can see everything, all at once," said Cordaro. "The best four words we would hear, and we heard them all the time, was 'I had no idea.'"
As an added bonus, the dazzling new ballpark fielded an equally dazzling array of on-field talent. The 2011 Storm Chasers ballclub was one of the best in franchise history, compiling a 79-63 record en route to a PCL championship while featuring 19 players who would go on to log time in Kansas City.
"From a marketing perspective, in terms of dollars spent, [the team's success] did very little to change our strategy," said Cordaro. "But what did change was how we were covered. Sports talk radio, local blogs, the World Herald and TV newscasts all took an interest in the team on the field, and as we continued to win in spite of losing guys to Kansas City, it really took on a life of its own."
In 2011, the Storm Chasers reinvented the wheel. In 2012, they just need to keep it rolling.
"At this point there's no reason to make any drastic changes," said Cordaro. "We'll be making more of an effort to tie our theme nights into our promotional nights, especially from a pop culture perspective. ...  was the first time in four seasons that we didn't win a Veeck-ie [Award, recognizing creative promotions]. Next season we'll be out to win one."
A renewed emphasis on creative and irreverent promotions would add to the team's legacy in this category, as previous efforts have included a facetious celebration of an intern named "Ty Cobb" as well as the first "Jersey Shore" theme night west of the Mississippi. For 2012, the possibilities are endless.
"We have the tools to succeed," said Cordaro. "And now that we've had the opportunity to really brand ourselves as Minor League Baseball, we plan on making our second year even better."