NASHVILLE—Just four years ago, Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner kicked off the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas by urging his constituents to come together as a group and approve the plan to bring every team's Web properties under the umbrella of Major League Baseball Advanced Media.
The Baseball Internet Rights Co, which was approved that week and launched before the start of the 2009 season, appears to have validated O'Conner's theory that the minor leagues could attract bigger and better advertisers working as one. With all but a handful of teams on board, BIRCO announced its first profitable year following the 2011 season.
O'Conner is again asking the minors to come together, this time to create an industry-wide marketing program that he predicts will attract the major corporate sponsors that MiLB has failed to land under its 20-year-old group marketing program. O'Conner announced the new marketing program—which he called Project Brand: 160 teams, one brand—and the committee of minor league executives that spent the past seven months crafting it, during the Winter Meetings opening session yesterday at the Opryland Hotel.
"As we celebrate 20 years of our national marketing program, we realize the program has served us well and accomplished things no one thought would ever be accomplished," O'Conner said to a ballroom full of minor league owners and executives. "But we also realize we have built a brand over the last 20 years worthy of much more. The current program is effective, but lacks the resources and organizational commitment to efficiently serve this powerful brand. We owe the brand more. We owe ourselves more. It is time for a change."
The change O'Conner envisions is a program that sells minor league baseball as an entity and promotes the model of affordable, family-friendly entertainment to major companies. It would abandon the minors' current marketing strategy, which pairs individual teams with relevant companies and has produced marginal profits despite otherwise significant growth in minor league attendance and exposure over the past 20 years. In its place would be an idea similar to ones that have helped the National Football League and Major League Baseball successfully market their products as a whole.
Tom Dickson, owner of the Lansing Lugnuts (Midwest) and Montgomery Biscuits (Southern) and a member of O'Conner's new marketing committee, explained just how far Minor League Baseball has fallen behind other professional sports in marketing revenue. He said Minor League Baseball made $2 million in national marketing revenue last year, compared to the in-stadium marketing revenue of the NFL ($431 million), MLB ($75 million) and Major League Soccer ($60 million).
"We need to think big," Dickson said. "We will be leveraging our wonderful demographics and product and put them together. We can monetize those efforts with significant sponsorship sales."
Participation in the new program will be voluntary for teams but will require a $15,000 investment that can be paid over two installments next year. All profits would be distributed evenly among participating teams. Chuck Greenberg, owner of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Carolina) and State College Spikes (New York-Penn) and another member of the committee, said the program does not expect to return a profit in its first two years—"We want to give the program every opportunity to build the right way," he said—but he expects that every team will at least recoup its investment by the end of the program's third year.
"Over the initial five-year window, clubs will receive more than three times what they would have if we ignored what was happening in the industry and gone with the status quo," Greenberg said.
Initial reaction from several minor league owners and officials was largely positive. Each said the minors' current marketing program was outdated and ripe for change. While the cost to participate is significant, particularly for smaller franchises, one minor league official believed most teams would invest in the program. He did not believe Minor League Baseball would have as difficult a time selling the marketing program as with BIRCO, which took roughly eight years to be completed.
Selling the program was on the Winter Meetings agenda for O'Conner and his marketing committee, which also included Craig Brown, president and co-owner of the Greenville Drive (South Atlantic) and Salem Red Sox (Carolina); Pat Fillipone, president of the Stockton Ports (California), Delmarva Shorebirds (South Atlantic) and Everett Aquasox (Northwest); and Joe Napoli, president and general manager of the Toledo Mud Hens (International). Each planned to provide further details to teams at league meetings over the final three days of the convention.
"We think this is the time," Greenberg said. "We have an amazing business and an amazing audience. It's time to unleash the power of Minor League Baseball and brand Minor League Baseball nationally."