This weekend, the Bowie Baysox, a minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, is hosting”Seinfeld Night” at their park off Route 50 in Prince George’s County.
A couple of weeks ago, 1,250 lucky fans received their own “Ode to Tommy John Surgery” elbow statue — complete with a removable ulnar collateral ligament — as part of a giveaway at a July 8 home game for the Potomac Nationals, an affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
The same club on July 29 is handing out Anthony Rendon figurines with “real electric hair.”
Around the Washington region and across the country, no one understands the gleeful fanaticism of sports fans better than baseball’s famously creative minor leagues, where a sultry summer night at the ballpark often is as much about promotional giveaways and goofy spectacles as it is homers and strikeouts.
In Little Rock, the Arkansas Travelers’ annual post-game “Diamond Dig” features dozens of female fans loosed upon the infield, furiously digging for a diamond ring buried in the dirt near home plate. In Batavia, New York, kids compete in the “Dizzy Bat Tire Race.” In California, “Nickelodeon Night” features the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sharing the spotlight with the San Jose Giants.
Potomac’s “Tommy John” statue, with its graphic elbow cross-section, complete with skin cut-away showing bones and muscles, was a huge hit in the park and beyond — even garnering a mention on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
For a minor league marketing executive, that’s like getting a walk-off home run from the bat of your starting pitcher.
“We were surprised by [the online reaction],” said Bryan Holland, general manager of sales for the “P-Nats.” “For us, it was like our seventh-seeded bobblehead. It was weird, it was different, it had never been done before.”
Stunts and giveaways have long been an accepted and even expected part of the minor league experience, promoters say.
“When you come to a minor league game, it’s a little bit more low-key,” Geoff Arnold, director of broadcasting and public relations for the Frederick Keys, said. “You’re not dealing with die-hard fans who are on the edge of their seat the entire game, and thus it becomes more about the promotions that draw fans to the game.”
For Arnold and his staff, the most successful promotions aren’t necessarily the best ideas on paper. Rather, they’re the ones that the fans in their market enjoy the most.
“The biggest thing is understanding what fans like or want,” he said. “If you have the best idea in the world and fans don’t care, what’s the point? So you have to cater to the fans and try to appeal to everyone.”
In his time with Frederick, another Orioles affiliate, Arnold has found his fanbase prefers celebrities to customized souvenirs. He cited an appearance by retired NBA player Muggsy Bogues, who signed autographs and helped draw around 8,000 fans to a Keys game earlier this season.
For others, a great promotion may drop out of thin air — literally.
“One of the most well-received promotions we’ve done this year is our Candy Drop,” Tom Burtman said. “We took a helicopter, filled it with 500 pounds of candy and dropped [the candy] on the outfield.”
Burtman, the promotions manager for the Hagerstown Suns, emphasized the importance of collaboration among the minor league staffs that work year-round brainstorming ideas to put on during the season.
“They say imitation is a form of flattery and we in minor league baseball do mimic a lot of what other teams are doing,” Burtman said. “We take certain parts of another team’s promotions and change things to make it relevant to our team and to improve on someone else’s idea.”
“There is a whole Minor League Baseball Promo Seminar dedicated to just that. It’s an opportunity for all minor league teams to get together and share ideas so we can take them back to our fans for their enjoyment.”
In fact, some minor league staffers have noted their major league counterparts borrowing ideas from their affiliates, too.
“We’re starting to see in the major leagues promotional schedules stuff you’d more likely see in the minor leagues,” Holland said. “Part of that is due to what the MLB commissioner has said — that the MLB is trying to garner a new fan base.”
The proliferation of “Star Wars” nights in major league parks, a phenomenon that started in places such as Bowie, is one example.
“I remember when Star Wars promotions started 8-9 years ago, and we were the only ones doing it,” Baysox promotions manager Chris Rogers said. “Lucasfilm caught on to this thing that was only done in the minor leagues, and soon it built momentum … It’s been amazing to see it go from talking to 1-2 people in the local area to submitting an official form to Lucasfilm every year.”
This season alone, 23 of the 30 MLB teams have or will hold a Star Wars Day or Star Wars Night, a testament to the influence minor league promotions can have ‚— as well as the power of a corporate sponsor.
And for many potential promotional concepts, finding a corporate sponsor such as Lucasfilm can determine if the idea will see the light of day.
“It’s one thing to come up with a great promotion, but then we have to sell it to a sponsor,” Burtman said. “Sometimes what we think is a great idea other potential sponsors may not.”
“So much of this starts as a joke … but we tell our interns when they have an idea that if they can get a corporate partner, we may use it,” Holland echoed.
What do the players think of all these wacky, attention-grabbing promotions? After all, aren’t these games their chance to impress as they strive to earn a major league roster spot?
“We have a lot of respect for the players,” Rogers said, “but they understand it’s a show of two parts. There’s the baseball, then there’s everything else that gets the kids, that gets the families engaged.”
In fact, as Burtman observed, a successful promotion enhances the baseball-watching experience rather than detracts.
“When we hit on a promotion that the fans come out for and we pack the stadium the players, the employees and the fans all benefit,” he said. “The players love playing in front of a large crowd, the employees love working with all the fans and the electricity that the fans bring when we have a busy stadium is a feeling like none other.”
The “Ode to Tommy John Surgery” certainly had this effect for the Potomac Nationals, the promotion helping attract an official attendance of 6,283, a beyond capacity crowd for Pfitzner Stadium — well above the season average.
“The on-field product is very much a conglomerate put together by our parent club. It’s our job to fill in the rest of the lines,” Holland said. “Whatever sells tickets and keeps fans happy — we think it’s the combination of baseball and one-of-a-kind promotions.”