Trade Show Sets Stage For Minors Promotional Schedule

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.--The offseason of giving continued at baseball's Winter Meetings, as gossip around the lobbies at Disney's Swan and Dolphin Resort focused on the increasing absurdity of player contracts.

Forget Alfonso Soriano's $136 million deal; how about Adam Eaton for $24.5 million or Julio Lugo for $36 million?

But the true indicator of the sport's continuing good health came not only in major league executives' wheeling and dealing. One level below the lobby, a cavernous, 120,000-square-foot space housed a better example of just how booming a business baseball--on the major and minor league level--has become.

Nearly 300 vendors set up booths at a cost of $14 a square foot for three days at the Winter Meetings trade show, hawking a spectrum of baseball-related goods and services that ranged from hats and bats to fireworks and mascots. According to Noreen Brantner, manager of exhibition services for Minor League Baseball, an estimated 3,000 people roamed the trade show as teams filled promotion schedules and checked out the latest advancements in everything from heated seats to bratwurst.

Goals of exhibitors in attendance varied from booth to booth and depended on the product. But one thing that first-time vendors and Winter Meeting veterans all agreed on is that attendance at the trade show is a must to be successful in the business of baseball.

"We'll get some ordering with customers from the past years," said Dave Eshelman, project manager for Liebe Athletic Lettering Co. "Teams want new designs and we can discuss what that takes. But it's more about being present and making sure that they know we're here working."

Tracking Industry's Growth

Joe Rubertino, national sales manager for Outdoor Cap Co., said the Arkansas-based company does roughly 25 percent of its annual business at the trade show.

"It's about being face to face with customers because they do buying around here," said Rubertino, who has been attending the Winter Meetings since the early 1990s.

Brantner said vendor attendance at the show has held steady around 300 over the past five years. Sales of Minor League Baseball licensed products have steadily increased during that time, however.

Minor League Baseball's affiliation with Major League Baseball Properties to create a licensing program in 1991 has been at the heart of that growth. Minor League Baseball grants manufacturers rights to use its logos in exchange for a royalty that gets distributed back to teams. The sale of licensed minor league products has increased 35 percent since 2000, and total revenue is expected to reach $44 million at the end of the 2007 season, said Brian Earle, director of licensing for Minor League Baseball.

"We provide a show as an opportunity to the clubs to see what our licensed vendors have to sell them," Earle said. "It also benefits and allows them to meet the clubs face to face, a chance that they wouldn't get during the year."

Building Success

Veterans of the trade show and true minor league success stories Dominic and Brennan Latkovski were again present at the BirdZerk! and ZOOperstars booth. The brothers, based out of Louisville, have created a successful business entertaining fans with a wacky mix of mascots and inflatable spoofs (Cow Ripken Jr. and Derek Cheetah, for example).

Dominic Latkovski first attended the Winter Meetings in 1992, hoping to line up a dozen contracts for his fledgling BirdZerk! business. He left with 48. The brothers came to this year's trade show with 200 appearances already scheduled for 2007, but still considered attendance a critical business opportunity.

"We come here to see all of our customers," Dominic said. "Our schedule is fairly booked up, but there are some teams which we haven't met or are interested in us. It is still important for us to come here and promote our business . . . Teams have begun focusing on promotions and understood the game on the field is secondary. They've learned the primary job is to entertain."

Also drawing a crowd throughout the trade show was ProBatter Sports and its top-of-the-line PX2 video pitching simulator--which retails for just under $45,000. ProBatter rented the largest area at the trade show, at 80 by 20 feet, and showed off its pitching machine inside a batting cage, offering patrons a chance to take a cut against simulated professional-level pitching.

The PX2 can serve up a variety of pitches, including a changeup so filthy that one hitter lost the grip of his bat, which flew out of his hands and somehow escaped through the netting and nearly clobbered Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who had earlier taken a few swings in the batting cage.

"Our goals are always to sell machines, but we try and get interest in training for the major league level and fan entertainment for the minor league level," said Adam Battersby, executive vice president and general manager for ProBatter. "Usually what happens is people (from teams) come over and check out machines and talk to their guys about it and close later on."

That's why, even if deals aren't signed, sealed at delivered at the trade show, everyone in the industry feels the need to be there. Christmas always comes a bit early in the baseball world.