Winter Meetings Wrapup

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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.

"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 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 . . . 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. As part of a presentation at the opening session of the Winter Meetings, 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."

Every minor league franchise will be included in the national marketing campaign, but teams are not required to pay the $15,000 investment fee. The teams that do are promised a three-to-one return on their investment as well as an annual residual return for as long as it is profitable, O'Conner said.

"We have an amazing business and an amazing audience," said Chuck Greenberg, owner of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Carolina) and State College Spikes (New York-Penn). "It's time to unleash the power of minor league baseball and brand minor league baseball nationally."

O'Conner said the response to the new program has been positive, and reaction from various league and team executives at the Winter Meetings has backed that up.

"The guys have put together a great plan. I'm hopeful that they are right, that the research they have done will prove correct," Iowa Cubs (Pacific Coast) president Sam Bernabe said. "In our business, there aren't many things that move the needle more than 2 or 3 percent at a time. If this works, it could change that. And it includes everyone."

And the little guys could be a major focus of the campaign. O'Conner pointed out that minor league baseball, with 160 teams, plays in more midsize and smaller markets than any other professional sport and would provide access to people major advertisers have a tough time reaching.

The program officially began with O'Conner's presentation, and leaders said the effort likely won't start generating money for two years. "We have planned for a two-year gestation period before we go to market," he said. "We need to be sure we are prepared to go the marketplace."

O'Conner spent a good part of his stay in Nashville explaining the sport's new marketing plan to his constituents. Next up on his to-do list is finding someone to run the program. He said Minor League Baseball has hired a New York executive search company to recruit an experienced person who will lead the new marketing program. The chief marketer will likely come from outside baseball, he said.

"Who we hire will be impressive, but also where we hire the person from will be impressive," O'Conner said. He said the first round of interviews is complete and he expects a hire to be made by early February. "This is not an easy job. I'm not opposed to it coming from within the (minor league baseball) family, but I also realize that person may not exist."

Board Of Trustees Adds Two

Columbus Clippers (International) president/general manager Ken Schnacke and Goldklang Group chairman Marv Goldklang were each elected to the National Association board of trustees during the Winter Meetings.

Schnacke replaces Pawtucket Red Sox general manager Mike Tamburro as the IL representative to the board of trustees, Minor League Baseball's governing body that is made up of 17 members—one from each league and an at-large member. Tamburro joined the board of trustees when it was formed in 1991 after the minor leagues adopted a new constitution. He stepped down in 1998 to oversee the PawSox's renovation of McCoy Stadium, and rejoined two years later.

"It was just time," Tamburro said. "I had done this for a long time. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed seeing the industry change. But you just reach a point where it is somebody else's turn, and I think we have a great representative coming in with Ken Schnacke of the Columbus club . . .

"I am confident that he will continue the International League's philosophy on the board and that he will try and do what is best for the industry and not necessarily what is best for the individual club. That is the challenge of being on the board, that sometimes you have to put your own best interest aside and make a decision that is in the best interest of the industry."

Schnacke joined the Clippers in 1977 and has served as GM since 1989. He oversaw the opening of the club's new downtown venue, Huntington Park, in 2009.

Goldklang joins the board as a representative of his group's Hudson Valley Renegades franchise, and he replaces Tri-City ValleyCats president Bill Gladstone as the New York-Penn League representative on the board of trustees. Gladstone had served on the board since 2001, in addition to being chairman of the minors' finance committee. His ValleyCats have been one of the league's steadiest and most creative franchises, winning a Freitas Award in 2009.

Goldklang brings a unique perspective to the board of trustees as the owner of multiple teams, including extensive experience with independent baseball.

"It will be great having the experience that Marv and Ken bring on the board," said Bernabe, who is chairman of the board of trustees. "Marv is diverse and he has a lot of different hats that he wears relative to baseball—different clubs and different levels."

New Helmets

The Winter Meetings trade show has long been the home of anything and everything one could possibly need in baseball merchandise and promotions. The sprawling convention center floor at the Opryland carried on that tradition, featuring items that ranged from the practical (like bottom-filling beer cups) to the bizarre (dancing Zooperstars Harry Canary and Tim Teabull were hard to miss).

And while many trade show offerings may never grab fans' attention, there was one item on display that will be featured prominently at every major league ballpark in 2013: a new state-of-the-art batting helmet.

As part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiated by Major League Baseball and the Players Association following the 2011 season, every major league hitter will be required to wear the Rawlings S100 Pro Comp Batting Helmet next season. An improved version of the S100 helmet minor league hitters have been required to don the past three seasons, the Pro Comp is constructed of aerospace carbon fiber and designed to protect against pitches up to 100 mph. It is approximately five ounces lighter than the minor league version—which originally drew complaints from players for being too bulky.  

Roughly 300 players wore the Pro Comp helmet in 2012 and were pleased with its fit, said Daniel Halem, Major League Baseball's senior vice president and general counsel of labor relations. "For this helmet, players didn't have any objection to it based on fit or weight. So we decided it was best to mandate it (in the CBA). When we have the opportunity to mandate a change that is good for the players and good for the game, we are going to try and do it."

Myrtle Beach Changes

At the Winter Meetings, minor league teams typically fill out their front offices with fresh-faced job seekers eager to break into baseball. However, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Carolina) arrived at this year's event with more serious business to tackle, like finding a new general manager.

Scott Brown left his post in Myrtle Beach after three seasons to take over as general manager of baseball operations for the Charlotte Knights (International), who are adding depth to their front office while preparing for life in a new ballpark. Brown takes over for veteran GM Dan Rajkowski, who was promoted to vice president/chief operating officer and will oversee the team's transition from Knights Stadium to a new $54 million downtown Charlotte ballpark set to debut on Opening Day 2014.

"It's certainly bittersweet; I love the beach. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Brown told the Myrtle Beach Sun News.

Meanwhile, Myrtle Beach is left to fill its top post relatively late in the game. The team can use its successful track record to help lure candidates, as Brown joins North Johnson as former Pelicans GM to make the leap from the Carolina League to Triple-A. Johnson now serves as GM of the Gwinnett Braves (International).

And while the Pelicans left Nashville without finalizing a hire, they did return home with a creative press release in hand. On the day after the Winter Meetings concluded, Myrtle Beach issued a light-hearted jab at the National Basketball Association's New Orleans franchise, which days earlier announced it would change its name from Hornets to Pelicans. As a counter, Myrtle Beach offered its fans—and New Orleans residents—the opportunity to rename the baseball team.

"Using the same level of out-of-the-box thinking used by the Hornets, nickname choices have been narrowed to Saints, Hornets, Jazz, Bayou Bengals, Ragin' Cajuns and Voodoo, along with any other current or former sports nickname the club could poach from the Bayou State," the press release stated.

The New King

George McGonagle has helped run the Appalachian League's Bluefield franchise for over 50 years and has "enjoyed every second of every minute of every day," McGonagle said.

Despite that experience and passion, McGonagle never suspected that he would be crowned this year's King of Baseball, the honor bestowed upon a veteran executive annually at the Winter Meetings.

McGonagle officially retired from Bluefield in 2007, but has stayed on board as president to help run the day-to-day operations as the club searches for the right fit at general manager (they have had four in five years).

"I'm shocked that somebody like me from little old Bluefield in West Virginia would be considered for the award," McGonagle said. "It's a big honor, because I've been going for years and watching the individuals that win with the backgrounds that they have, and I am still stunned that I fit in there."