For Minor Leagues, Hats Aren't Just For Wearing

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If you're looking for signs that the economy is perking up again, maybe your local minor league ballpark can be an indicator.

Minor League Baseball announced that sales through its national licensing program saw a 12 percent increase in 2010. The program, established in 1991, consists of the 160 clubs in the domestic-based leagues.

The program became a huge revenue producer for minor league teams, and peaked with $54.7 million in sales in 2008. Sales dropped by 17 percent in the next year to $45.7 million, but rebounded to $51.1 million last year. Not quite back to the 2008 level, but still the second-highest mark since the program began.

"Minor League Baseball is proud of the popularity that our clubs' names, logos and merchandise have with our industry's fans," Minor League Baseball director of licensing Sandie Hebert said. "Our clubs and licensees work very hard in providing and creating merchandise that minor league baseball fans of all ages can enjoy."

When Minor League Baseball releases its annual sales figures, it also releases its list of the top 25 teams in sales. The list is only alphabetical, not in order of sales, but it gives you a good idea of what is resonating with fans. That's especially true if you look at the lists over time.

Stick With The Classics

Sports Business Daily studied every top 25 list that Minor League Baseball had released since it began tracking sales data in 1993, and it found just two franchises that appeared on every list: the Durham Bulls (International) and Portland Sea Dogs (Eastern). The Trenton Thunder (Eastern) have been in the top 25 for 17 years, which is every year of the franchise's existence, and the Toledo Mud Hens (International) have missed the list just twice.

Several other teams have appeared on the top 25 in every year of their existence: Lakewood BlueClaws (South Atlantic, 10 years); Lehigh Valley IronPigs (International, three); Reno Aces (Pacific Coast, two); Richmond Flying Squirrels (Eastern, one); Round Rock Express (Pacific Coast, 11), Sacramento River Cats (Pacific Coast, 11).

Of the teams that have been long-term fixtures on the list, you'll notice that most have not made significant alterations to the logos on their caps over the years, though all the teams have made changes to their overall look. In particular, a Durham, Portland and Toledo cap purchased today will not look significantly different than one purchased years ago—you'll just have many more choices of styles and colors to choose from.

Toledo provides a great example of updating your look without changing it. The Mud Hens cap looks pretty much as it did when Jamie Farr first made it famous wearing it on the television show "M*A*S*H," but the franchise has done a great job of designing a new team logo and updating the lettering it uses and other aspects of its look. The Bulls and Sea Dogs have done the same thing, though not quite to the same degree—perhaps because their logos just don't need to be messed with.

Interestingly, the Thunder had success with a logo that we once selected as the worst in the minor leagues—the much-lamented "Thunder Chicken"—and have continued to remain strong in sales after completely changing their look. That could be in part because their name and look appeals not just to Thunder fans but also to Little League and youth baseball.

In its study of the licensing data, Sports Business Daily noted three factors that continue to drive licensing sales, beyond what you would think of as traditional sales channels. First, online sales are starting to grow as minor league teams make the transition to a centralized Web operation through the Baseball Internet Rights Co. The minor leagues started this transition in 1998, and now almost all minor league sites are under one umbrella, much the same way the major league operation works.

Teams have also seen sales increase when they either create new team stores in their ballparks or increase the space for the stores. And finally, licensing sales through agreements with Little League Baseball provide significant revenue to some teams. Majestic and New Era pick a group of minor league teams to market to distributors each year, and those distributors market them to youth and adult leagues. For teams that catch on with amateur players—in particular, inexplicably the Batavia Muckdogs (New York-Penn)—this can be a significant source of revenue.