Like so much else during these strange pandemic-affected days, the 2020 Minor League Baseball Innovators Summit transitioned from a location-based event to a virtual one. Instead of gathering in Winston-Salem, North Carolina -- the originally scheduled host city -- attendees congregated via their computer screens. This year's Summit, slimmed-down but
Like so much else during these strange pandemic-affected days, the 2020 Minor League Baseball Innovators Summit transitioned from a location-based event to a virtual one. Instead of gathering in Winston-Salem, North Carolina -- the originally scheduled host city -- attendees congregated via their computer screens. This year's Summit, slimmed-down but still substantial, took place Tuesday and Wednesday.
In "normal" times, the Innovators Summit is dedicated to recapping the recently concluded season, with executives throughout the industry talking about the myriad successes and failures that occurred. The general premise is that a rising tide lifts all boats. In other words, what led to success for one team may very well lead to success for another. That premise persisted in 2020, although this time around the focus was on the season that wasn't as well as the 2021 season that, in one form or another, will be.
There was, of course, much to discuss, from non-traditional revenue strategies to diversity and inclusion initiatives to pandemic-related crowd control and safety measures. These topics and many more were addressed via a mix of "Summit Room" presentations and simultaneously occurring symposiums and "Breakout Sessions" related to all facets of the industry. Other familiar elements included the (of course, virtual) Trade Show and the Golden Bobblehead Awards (emceed by this writer), which honored the year's best promotions. The Class A Charleston RiverDogs (Here for the Holy City), Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas (Chihuahuas Volunteer Pack) and Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Ballpark Airbnb) all won Golden Bobbleheads, with the Blue Wahoos taking home the "Best Overall" honor as well.
From beginning to end, the Innovators Summit's myriad elements were introduced and contextualized by host Dan Migala, founder of sports marketing company 4FRONT.
“Our definition of innovation at 4FRONT is to stand for something, take a risk, tell a story and own a moment in time," said Migala. "As the host of this year’s virtual Innovators Summit, we did all of that and more. It was definitely the most inspiring Summit I’ve ever been a part of and to bring the community, energy and spirit of Minor League Baseball together virtually was an incredible feeling.”
For those working in Minor League Baseball, the Innovators Summit was free to attend. For those working in sports, but outside of Minor League Baseball, registration cost $100. The reduced costs led to a much higher-than-usual attendance, with approximately 1,200 individuals taking part. There was ample opportunity for commiseration and catharsis.
"I think anyone would say that they need a breather at the end of a full season," Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach Pelicans director of fan engagement Hunter Horenstein said. "But this year, with everything that we went through as a league and individual teams, this was more than a breath of fresh air. It was an energizing jolt that stoked the passion and relit the fire that drives those of us who work in this industry."
Horenstein was one of the Innovators Summit's many speakers, taking part in Tuesday afternoon's "Fan Engagement Beyond Nine Innings" marketing symposium. He praised the St. Petersburg, Florida-based Minor League Baseball Special Events team for working to ensure that this year's iteration was as "close to the real experience as possible." Mackenzie Parker was part of that St. Pete team in 2019, serving as a communications associate for Minor League Baseball. She now works as the client services manager for the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers.
"[The 2019 Innovators Summit] was the first time I got to see first-hand what everyone meant by the 'Minor League Baseball Family,'" said Parker. "Even as someone who didn’t work for a team, I connected with so many people that I know are looking out for me and I for them. I never would have made those connections outside of the Summit. [In 2019,] I heard a lot of ideas that I knew were good and interesting, but I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to put them to use. This year, I went looking for those same ideas from all the creative minds across Minor League Baseball because I knew they could have a real, positive impact on my team. The discussions are a lot more engaging for me; they’re no longer theoretical, but practical and necessary."
Judging from real-time live chat reaction as well as subsequent social media praise, one of the event's most impactful presentations came courtesy of Dr. Richard Lapchick. His talk, entitled "Facing Uncomfortable Truths," focused on "the new world of sport during the COVID crisis and the racial reckoning."
"Dr. Richard Lapchick’s presentation really stood out for me and spurred the most discussions," said Migala. "From his personal experience in using sport to combat social justice to his insights for Minor League Baseball teams, I’m very much looking forward to seeing how teams take his learnings to inspire change in their communities.”
There are other pressing issues that Minor League Baseball is facing, of course. Because of the cancellation of the 2020 season, the vast majority of Minor League teams had to lay off or furlough employees. One of the Summit's most timely presentations was Wednesday morning's "Breaking Back into Baseball," hosted by once-and-hopefully-future Minor League executives Danielle Chylinski and Austin Scher.
"[The loss of jobs] is not talked about enough and it felt really empowering to be able to talk about it freely, openly and honestly to such a large group of people," said Chylinski. “I only met Austin virtually one time before this session happened. It was awesome to see the support and positive feedback from the Innovators Summit participants once we went live and did our thing. People are requesting a podcast so we may have to make that happen.”
"Any opportunity I have to be openly passionate about the industry I love is an opportunity I relish, and I only hope the viewers enjoyed listening to us as much as we enjoyed speaking to them," added Scher. "As uncertain as the future of our industry is, we will always be strongest when we work together."
That, more than anything, seemed to encapsulate the theme of the 2020 Innovators Summit: Stronger together, even when apart.
"I’m very grateful to work with so many talented, creative, passionate and tenacious people in Minor League Baseball," said Horenstein. "The two days of seeing them, albeit via a computer screen, made me so much more proud to be part of such a supportive industry."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.