Most creative Minor League Baseball promotions inspire employees of other teams to react with sentiments along the lines of "Why didn't I think of that?"
And then there was the event that the Charleston RiverDogs staged on June 18, at which the sentiments were more likely to be along the lines of "I never would of thought of that!"
The event in question, the 2012 MiLBY award winner for Promotion of the Year, was truly unprecedented: the RiverDogs held the first round of the South Atlantic League Home Run Derby on the deck of the USS Yorktown, a decommissioned World War II-era aircraft carrier turned living history museum stationed on the Charleston Harbor. Derby participants, standing within a makeshift inflatable batting cage, blasted baseballs into the water (where they were summarily retrieved by volunteers on jet skis).
The RiverDogs' aquatic revitalization of a moribund All-Star festivities staple beat out 11 other contenders en route to being voted 2012's best promotion by MiLB.com readers. And for good reason, as this was an event that truly had it all: stunning visuals along with copious local and national media attention. It also had both a national sponsorship and philanthropic tie-in via MillerCoors' "Welcome Back to the High Life" initiative for returning American veterans. Oh, and that there was a cameo from RiverDogs co-owner Bill Murray (the team's "director of fun") sure didn't hurt.
The idea to stage the derby on the USS Yorktown came courtesy of Dan Migala, sports business expert and co-founder of the Chicago-based Property Consulting Group (PCG). Migala, a self-described "think-big kind of guy," was brought aboard (so to speak) by RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols and industry icon Mike Veeck of the Goldklang Group (which owns the RiverDogs in addition to several other Minor League teams).
Migala has experience with military-themed promotions dating back to his time as vice president of creative partnerships for the San Diego Padres, where he worked extensively with team president Tom Garfinkel to engage with the region's military population. He was brainstorming ways to engage with Charleston baseball fans in a similar fashion when inspiration struck.
"If anything, this is a lesson in the process of thinking big and going beyond the ballpark," said Migala. "When I first saw [the USS Yorktown], it was like the scene in Field of Dreams. But instead of seeing a baseball field in the cornfield, in this case it was on an aircraft carrier. From there, it was a matter of working out the logistics and finding a [sponsorship] partner, because this wasn't the type of event where it was just 'insert sponsor here.'"
Enter Miller High Life, whose "Welcome Veterans Back to the High Life" promotional campaign seeks to provide veterans "with thousands of memorable 'High Life' experiences, such as tickets to professional sporting events and concerts." This iconic brand was eager to partner with the RiverDogs on this unique Home Run Derby, once Migala approached them with what he calls "seven innings worth of an idea."
"The goal is then for the sponsor to come in and be the closer, so to speak," continued Migala. "And [Miller High Life] did that. They customized it by partnering with local bars, producing online videos and having [commercial spokesperson] Wendell Middlebrooks attend. ... For Minor League Baseball marketers to unlock national sponsorship dollars, you need to create an idea that sponsors want to invest in at that level. [Miller High Life] was looking at this as a national promotion, using Minor League Baseball as the foundation to tell their story."
"We always strive to provide our loyal High Life drinkers with innovative and fun opportunities," wrote Miller High Life brand manager Brendan Noonan in an email. "We are proud that our involvement in the derby was tied to our 'Welcome Veterans Back to the High Life' initiative that helped veterans across the country enjoy some of life's little luxuries this past summer."
As Migala was working on the sponsorship parameters, Echols was engaged in the task of making sure that the derby would work on a logistical level. The USS Yorktown is now part of the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, and Echols said that the museum was eager to participate as they are "trying to find revenue-generating events, and always looking for ways to highlight the uniqueness of the ship."
Securing permission to hit baseballs into the harbor was a bigger concern for Echols and his staff, and in this regard he likely became the first general manager to deal with Harbor Police and the Department of Homeland Security while coordinating a promotion.
"We had to work to assure them, and then the community, that we wouldn't be letting balls drop to the bottom, as this could endanger animals and the environment," he said.
The aforementioned "volunteers on jet skis" took care of this potential problem, and Echols soon secured the necessary approvals from the various governmental agencies and city governments (on both sides of the water) that were needed to make the derby a reality. And soon, that's just what it was -- a glorious reality.
Approximately 400 fans attended the free event, with their access to the USS Yorktown granted upon providing a not-so-secret password of "Home Run Derby." These fans lined the sides and upper-deck sections of the USS Yorktown as some of the SAL's top hitting prospects blasted baseballs beneath an inflatable batting cage provided by InMotionAir. ("They sent me a blast email out the blue, advertising inflatable batting cages," recalled Echols. "Once I saw that, I thought, 'My goodness, someone wants to make this work.' Everything just fell into place.")
American war veterans honored by Miller High Life also were taking swings beneath the inflatable cage along with Murray, a recent inductee into the South Atlantic League Hall of Fame. Echols reports that the resulting local media coverage of the event "moved the needle" when it came to ticket sales for the following evening's All-Star Game at Joseph P. Riley Stadium, and though that was the main event, this is the rare instance in which a Home Run Derby ultimately overshadowed the game itself.
"It was a total team effort and a flawless promotion that was fun to be a part of from start to finish," said Echols. "The combination of an influential industry leader in Dan Migala, the Veeck flair and a national sponsor gave our fans and the All-Star players a lifetime memory, and that is something our entire staff is extremely proud of."
"In order to think outside of the box, we removed the batter's box," said Migala. "This could start a trend."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @bensbiz.