To Make Up For Lost Revenue, Minor League Teams Turn To T-Shirts And Chicken
Although the season wasn’t officially canceled until June 30, Brian Shallcross and the Bowie Baysox had long sensed the day was coming. He and his team knew they had to be prepared for the inevitable, which in the minor leagues means coming up with something creative and memorable.
So they set to work.
“I mean, it was pretty obvious to us that the season wasn't going to be played and Major League Baseball gave us no indication to the contrary,” he said. “So, you know, we just sat around and said, ‘All right, well, what can we do to capitalize on it and, you know, add some humor and some levity to the situation?’ ”
They had to do it fairly cost-effectively, considering a season without games meant a season without much in the way of revenue. The answer they came up with? Shirts.
“We'd been working on it for weeks, refining it, and the concept was just like a concert tour that never happened,” Shallcross said. “Adding the ‘undefeated’ was kind of a late addition. And that was kind of the thing that I think piqued everybody's interest: The fact that we were undefeated this year. I think that's what caught everybody's attention.”
Moments after the league announced the season wasn’t happening, the Baysox tweeted a link to pre-order their Undefeated Tour shirt, which listed the dates of each series scheduled to be played in 2020. They didn’t lose any of those games, so they were undefeated.
The Baysox estimate they’ve sold roughly 500 of the shirts, which is a surprisingly large number when compared to a normal season.
“It's more t-shirts than we sell in a year. So from our perspective, it was just great to see the community rally behind it,” Shallcross said. “And, you know, we like to think that we're supportive of the community in so many different ways. And it just really warmed our hearts that people just said, ‘You know, give me a t-shirt and we love you.’ ”
From there, the trend quickly spread across the country. Dozens of clubs are offering similar shirts with snarky themes and catchphrases designed to capture the frustration of an entire season without minor league baseball.
Teams like the Durham Bulls (“This Is Some Bullshirt”), Buffalo Bisons (“Worse Than Ranch With Wings”), Pensacola Blue Wahoos (“You’re On Mute, 2020”) and Erie SeaWolves (“Arrrgggghhh!”) all added their creative twists.
In Madison, Ala., where owner Ralph Nelson has been waiting two seasons to see the Rocket City Trash Pandas play their first game, the shirts were a huge hit.
“Those t-shirts that said ‘Just Trash,’ I know we’ve sold over 2,000 so far,” Nelson said. “So, just those, and we sell them for . . . I think it's $34 each, so we've done $68,000 in sales just in those t-shirts alone.”
Merchandise isn’t usually a particularly big revenue driver for minor league clubs. The vast majority of their money comes from people buying tickets and concessions at 70 home games a year (for full-season clubs), so these shirts—and everything else teams have come up with over the last six months—are not going to make up for the loss of the season.
But it’s not nothing. Every little bit counts when you’re trying to find enough money to keep employees on the books for another month while staring down the prospect of no games until next April.
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In 2019, without playing a game, the Trash Pandas sold $336,000 worth of merchandise. This year, again with no baseball, the number is at $400,000 and rising.
“We continue to have the momentum in the community that that's so important,” Nelson said. “You know, for us to get ready for Opening Day next year now, I think we've made a lot of lemonade out of lemons, and I'm very, very proud of our staff.”
Apparel is one thing, but minor league teams have found plenty of other ways to recoup some of the revenue they’ve lost by not having a season. One particularly popular method is through food.
Some teams have sold meal kits. Others have turned their stadiums into socially-distanced restaurants. Others have offered culinary classes taught by their head chefs. But perhaps the simplest, most straightforward method is through bulk chicken sales.
A few teams on the East Coast have partnered with Mountaire Farms to sell chicken at low prices.
“Who in the world thought that we would sell frozen chicken,” Myrtle Beach Pelicans assistant GM Kristin Call said, “but there's an event (where) we just sold 43,000 pounds of frozen chicken.”
Mountaire Farms wasn’t selling as much chicken as they would in a normal year, so they turned to minor league teams. Using teams’ parking lots, they unloaded literal tons of frozen chicken at prices well below the norm. Some of that chicken went home with the customers, who also had the option to donate to a local food bank.
To make it all work, they got some help from a former minor league employee.
“The marketing director for Mountainaire used to work in minor league baseball—actually worked for the Delmarva Shorebirds—and so I've known him over the years, and he jumped ship maybe 10 years ago to get into the chicken business,” Shallcross said. “And so he was kind of his brainchild, a guy named Brian Patey. . . . Once it was clear we weren't playing baseball, I was like, ‘Well, these guys, they know marketing, right?’ His job is to sell chicken, so we can figure out a plan to do it.
“If we had to add it up, we probably sold roughly 2,400-2,500 40-pound boxes of chicken. So multiply 2,500 times 40, that's how many pounds of chicken.”
There are months to go before the next Opening Day, and uncertainty surrounding the virus and the negotiations between MLBand Minor League Baseball still abound. Until the day the game returns, minor league teams will use their ingrained ingenuity to get by as best they can.
Sometimes that means drive-in movies, sometimes it means disc golf, sometimes it means fireworks shows. Other times, it can be as simple as t-shirts and chicken.