BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- On the field, Minor League teams spend the better part of five months battling for league championships. Tempers flare and benches occasionally empty before champagne corks finally pop. At the Minor League Promotional Seminar, that competition is replaced by a sense of community.
Approaching the middle of its third decade, the seminar brought together hundreds of front office and marketing officials from nearly 100 Minor League teams, representatives of other sports, vendors, marketing professionals and a few job seekers.
Like last year's event in Charlotte, N.C., the theme was "Because One Idea is Worth the Price of Admission." And the seminar gets right down to business when attendees are called on to share their most popular promotions from the 2007 season.
Among the offerings were the Tulsa Drillers' "Elvis Night," which featured a "midget Elvis wedding," the South Bend Silver Hawks' "Hug a Plumber Night," and the "Fastest Fat Man Contest," a season-long promotion of the West Virginia Power.
"It started out as us being idiots," joked Power general manager Ryan Gates. "It's goofy, it's stupid. It was all tongue-in-cheek. We didn't force anyone to run. ... It was such a hit -- so many people stuck around after the game [to see the finals]."
The Chattanooga Lookouts took advantage of the well-publicized meltdown of Mississippi Braves manager Phillip Wellman -- which occurred at Chattanooga's AT&T Field -- by hosting a "Rosin Bag Toss."
Not all promotions were as successful, however. The Omaha Royals had an Alex Gordon Bobblehead giveaway, only to learn that the souvenirs came with Gordon's last name spelled "G-O-R-D-N." So the team rolled with it, dropping the letter "O" from everything at Rosenblatt Stadium that night. They became the Maha Ryals, Joey Gathright became Jey Gathright and the team printed thousands of tiny "O's" that were distributed to fans.
On a similar, albeit far more serious, note, New Orleans Zephyrs general manager Mike Schline related his team's experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and urged attendees to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. Among his suggestions were preparing an emergency management plan, maintaining communication with fans and staff members, planning and budgeting for emergency travel and making sure the ballpark is insured properly.
In April 2006, just over six months after Katrina devastated New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, the Zephyrs were ready for Opening Day and drew a crowd of 11,006.
"Remember, your team is a symbol of your city in more ways than just baseball," Schline said.
Helpful suggestions, cost-cutting methods and general brainstorming were featured throughout the four-day gathering at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel. Charleston RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols related his team's successful "Salute to the Negro Leagues."
"It's something we should all take a look at it," he said. "Marketing [your team] to African-Americans is not really just one event. It was the culmination of our efforts. We're closer to eight or 10 percent of the fan base for us -- we're happy with that and looking for room to grow."
General manager Mike Nutter discussed the Fort Wayne Wizards' success in hosting Faith Nights at Memorial Stadium. Among his suggestions were hosting movie nights, bringing in regional faith-based entertainers and working with local radio stations with religious formats. The Wizards also have seen positive results by bringing in athletes like Indianapolis Colts punter Hunter Smith and WNBA player Shanna Crossley, an Indiana native.
"The last two years with Hunter and Shanna blew away the baseball people we could bring in on the same budget," Nutter said.
Kane County Cougars GM Jeff Sedivy told how his team tapped a new reservoir of fans when it hosted a peanut-free night.
"It's one of those things when you add up the losses, the positives far outweigh the negatives," he said. "You're opening the game you love to kids who've never been here."
Similarly, Lake Elsinore Storm president and general manager Dave Oster discovered cost savings and reached new fans when the team hosted "Going Green Night" in July. There was a health and sustainability festival featuring local artists and performers outside The Diamond as well as helpful hints inside the ballpark. The team wore uniforms made of hemp that were raffled off after the game, which concluded with a green fireworks show.
The Storm did more than just offer environmentally friendly tips, however. They installed water-free urinals and a new irrigation unit that saves millions of gallons of water a year.
"These are great programs. Not only do they do great things for the world itself, you're also getting money back in return," Oster said.
The Vermont Lake Monsters went international in coming up with ways to grow what general manager C.J. Knudsen calls "Lake Monsters Nation." Knudsen personally traveled to Macedonia -- and plans to return next spring -- to bring baseball equipment to a country where the sport had never been played.
"People loved it," he said. "It was just an unbelievable experience."
The Lake Monsters also hosted their first Dominican Heritage Night after a team of Little Leaguers from that Latin American nation paid a reciprocal visit to Vermont at the end of June.
The community feel of the seminar was never more evident than during a workshop on game entertainment. Dozens of participants threw around ideas in what amounted to a 2 1/2-hour brainstorming session.
While many may consider only what goes on inside the ballpark as game-day entertainment, Kane County assistant GM Jeff Ney said the experience really begins outside. Teams should take into account everything from litter to road construction on the way to the stadium and the performance of parking lot attendants.
"Those are things that, in fairness, should be out of your control, but fans are going to receive it as things that are happening at your ballpark," he said.
Likening the ballpark experience to attending a Broadway show or going to the movies, Mobile BayBears and Modesto Nuts president and COO Bill Shanahan said now is the time to begin "rehearsals."
"There are so many different facets to the show, and we're in show business," he explained. "There's Spring Training [in baseball] and this is, in essence, our Spring Training. If you develop all your promotions and in-game entertainment, then you've got a good, new foundation set for a new season."
Shanahan lauded the Mississippi Braves for the "Field of Dreams" theme they developed for player introductions at the 2007 Southern League All-Star Game. Players emerged from the center-field fence at Trustmark Park, walking through machine-generated fog.
"It was goosebumpy," said Shanahan, noting he stole the idea for a collegiate All-Star game he hosted in the Coastal Plain League. "It was absolutely incredible. The crowd was in awe."
Credit also was given to the Huntsville Stars, who borrowed a page from "The Natural" during one of their fireworks shows. Using a cable that was undetected by fans, the team had a batter swing at the plate, shooting a flare to one of the stadium's light towers to set off the show.
The Minor League experience, Shanahan advised, does not end with the final out in the ninth inning.
"It's just as important to have one of your mascots [in the parking lot], saying, 'Good night,' as it is having them around during the game," he said. "Whether you win or lose is not important. Did [the fans] have fun?"
Just what will constitute fun in 2008? According to Jason Klein and Casey White of Plan B Branding, the answer is things from Japan.
The country that came up with ThunderStix is ready to export theme songs, jet balloons and loud plastic "clappers" that double as megaphones.
"I think every team in Minor League Baseball needs a theme song," Klien said. "If you don't have a theme song, get a theme song."