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December 5, 2012

Sobsequy

Minor League Baseball's Promotion Problem

by Adam Sobsey

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The Winter Meetings—or rather, “Winter” Meetings; it was about 75 degrees here in Music City on Monday—are where everybody goes to make major-league deals and do major-league things. Peter Gammons is here, apparently towing multiple clones of himself who allow him to be shaking hands simultaneously in different locations around the Gaylord Opryland Gullywhumpus. Ken Rosenthal looks nervous all the time, and slightly paranoid. Actually, just about everyone looks a little paranoid. And I keep running into the same people I know. This is a small world in a big place.

Guys not in the majors are here trying mightily to get in, somehow, anywhere in the machinery of the business. From the size of the place to the teeming thousands to the millionaires to the bright lights, this is without a doubt the big time, the Show, the major leagues.

But you know what? The minor leagues organize the Winter Meetings. Or rather, The Minor Leagues. So I found out from Steve Densa, Executive Director of Communications of Minor League Baseball (MiLB), when I went to him to get my media pass. Or rather, “media pass.”

Major League Baseball gives out a limited number of MLB-approved passes to each outlet, and there are more BP writers here in Nashville than BP passes (we’re a more-for-your-money kind of org; we put a lot of guys on base). So I arranged a pass from the MiLB office through the Durham Bulls, the team I cover—but the thing attached to the lanyard isn’t a pass in the same way as an MLB pass is. I can get into some rooms with it, but not the media workroom even though my pass says “Adam Sobsey, Media” on it, and MLB has made sure I can’t get in by posting a vicious Cerberus at the three-door entrance. Yes, the Media Room is the Underworld, full of spirits (Joe Torre) and shadows (press conference table under lights) and secrets (who signed whom for how much?), and I want in. I am the opposite of the Groucho Marx thing about not wanting to be part of a club that would have me as a member.

Well, actually, there’s plenty to absorb and enjoy here in this Taj Mahal of Tacky outside the rooms I can’t get into (look, Jim Leyritz!). In fact the issue of access, exclusivity, and aspiration—all the things (plus money) that define the difference between the minors and the majors—is appropriately front-and-center against the unseen minor-league machinery that’s running this show, or rather, Show. For every Angel Pagan signing, there are countless creatures trying to crab and claw their way into (or back into) the game—even if it means starting in the minors.

According to Densa, once MiLB and MLB agree each year on a site for the Winter Meetings—it wasn’t all that long ago that the two organizations, perplexingly, met separately—it’s MiLB that handles most of the planning details. Yes, MLB holds sway and pulls rank wherever appropriate—its needs are the top priority—but that also includes pulling out from wherever it has no interest.

To wit, Monday’s Opening Session, a giant convocation in a freezing-cold assembly hall. The speakers were minor-league executives. The topic was the minor leagues. The awards were minor-league awards. The name-change announcement was a minor-league name-change announcement (Reading Fightin [sic] Phils). People in the room were wearing passes that said “Pacific Coast League,” “Pensacola Blue Wahoos,” and so on. The emcee was Randy Wehofer, who is the radio broadcaster for the Iowa Cubs. The keynote speaker was Pat O’Conner, President & CEO of MiLB. If there was a major-league official in the roomful of hundreds and hundreds of souls, I never saw one. Names sounded famous—Abzug, Hunsicker—but did not belong to the famous people (Bella, Gerry) who bear them in the public eye.

Executives and outgoing Trustees were briefly feted and beplaqued. Lament and memorial was made to the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, whose community suffered a devastating fire, and to the northeastern seaboard, still recovering from Sandy. “Compassion, togetherness and unity” were watchwords. “The old enemy called greed pops its ugly head up now and then,” O’Conner said, “but unity is one of our most valuable assets.” Has anyone seen Gordon Gekko? No?

But also, yes, sort of. Greed isn’t good in MiLB-speak, but profit certainly is. Tom Dickson, who owns two minor-league teams, noted that MiLB revenue is up 54 percent in the last decade. The industry is booming. Starting in 1994—not coincidentally, the year of the major-league strike that torpedoed the season—MiLB has waged deliberate, long-range, and successful campaigns to grow. “We’ve built a brand,” Dickson said, then added, “but we owe the brand more. It’s time for a change, and change is mustering up the courage to feel uncomfortable.”

The new campaign, known as Project Brand, involves all 160 teams (MiLB hopes) paying semiannually into a marketing wing that will attract national sponsorship to the organization—and it’s important to remember that MiLB is not simply an arm of MLB but its own entity, one that maintains a contractual agreement with MLB to field and protect its players in the way MLB requires. A two-minute video was shown, a blitz of images of the minors spangled with the logos of Ford, Southwest Airlines, Procter & Gamble, and other big companies. (It wasn’t clear to me whether these were current sponsors or hoped-for sponsors.) The Opening Session presenters were so firm on the message delivered by the video that they showed it again at the end of the hour.

But there was an interesting thing about that two-minute video. It featured three quick but indelible shots of the Durham Bulls and their mascot, Wool E. Bull, and three more of the Toledo Mudhens. The video also happened to include lingering images of the Montgomery Biscuits and Lansing Lugnuts, the two franchises owned by Tom Dickson.

Leaving aside the latter, which was just a formal tip-of-the-cap to the deserving guy at the podium, there is no mistaking the message inside the message of that video. MiLB knows what sells its brand: its flagship products, the ones known nationwide. The Durham Bulls (Bull Durham) and Toledo Mudhens (M*A*S*H, Klinger) are both Hollywood-certified celebrity entities. That is, they already have built-in national sponsorship of a kind, and that’s what MiLB needs to capitalize on. “We are essentially invisible to national advertisers,” Dickson said, as he went over the eye-popping details on a chart: MLB and its 30 teams draw $114 million in annual national sponsorship revenue; MiLB and its 160 franchises, $2 million. (More eye-popping: Major League Soccer, with comparatively tiny attendance and exposure—about six million fans annually—pocketed $60 million this year, according to the chart.)

It’s probably worth pointing out that Wool E. Bull, the Durham Bulls’ mascot, is actually an invention of the Bull Durham movie subsequently adopted by the Bulls themselves, a tidy way of encapsulating the general minor-league move toward the mainstream. The minor leagues have not gotten more like the Mudhens and Bulls of old. Those teams were strictly local, sometimes shambolic presences. No, the Bulls and Mudhens have gotten more like the minor leagues. Or rather, the “Minor Leagues,” in quotes and caps: this is now a near-conceptual organization, operating from an evolving but self-conscious set of strategies regarding image, audience, etc.  So that when an MiLB executive announces an intention to attract “affluent, aging, upscale buyers” who “spend billions of dollars on a year on stuff”—Baby Boomers, he clarifies—a huge cargo of assumptions is left for the listener to unload. This is complex ideation, a welter of signifiers at play. The minors are a semiotician’s dream. Note the compound, often nonsensical team nicknames, derived from the spirit and elemental mashup of “Mudhens” but not from any apparent authentic source. There is such a thing as a Mudhen (aka American Coot) but not, from what I can tell, a Muckdog or an IronPig or a BayBear.

None of that is criticism. Brands do what they must to get on, and minor-league baseball, especially at the upper levels, remains one of the great entertainment bargains in this country, a high-spirited and hopeful pastime. Yes, it seems that everyone here is trying to get in the major-league door, but the Winter Meetings are a reminder that it’s the hidden, support-joist apparatus of the minors, a shadow business of sorts, that allows the majors to thrive. MiLB and its realm is the humble peasantry that supports MLB’s royal life, though it cannot get into the castle. The minors are busy arranging, say, hotel rates and catering, while the majors take suites and room service. The minors play the same game, with the same rules (well, except seven-inning doubleheader games), from the same 60 feet 6 inches, but the 160 teams here in the Winter Meetings Opening Session don’t amount, nastionally, to even a single one of the players or ex-players under the TV lights. MiLB’s self-issued challenge “to feel uncomfortable” means the prince declaring himself kingworthy, slipping past the gate, and holding court until he can at least sit on the corner of the throne and receive secondary tribute. Apparently Pete Vuckovich, who won the Cy Young Award in 1982, is here in Nashville. I didn’t meet him, but I did meet his son, also named Pete, who works for PNC Wealth Management. Baseball, money. Yes.

My media pass did not get me into the Awards Luncheon that followed the Opening Session, but I pretended I was looking for someone I needed to talk to—and because I wound up finding someone I needed to talk to, in retrospect I wasn’t lying. First I passed by Buck Showalter (I think it was him) scarfing down salad at a table with what may have been employees of Orioles affiliates. Then, as I was leaving, I found the Durham Bulls’ front office folks, with whom I had a little business. There was an empty seat at their table and so pretty soon I found myself eating that most mythical of creatures, the Free Lunch, just like Buck Showalter. More awards were issued, one of them to a player. Phillies prospect Darin Ruf was on hand to collect a trophy for leading the minor leagues in home runs last year. He hit 38 of them, an astounding 20 in August alone to rocket late to the top.

Ruf also got a monetary gift. He was presented with a check for $7,600, $200 for each homer. That’s almost exactly the same total as the proposed semiannual team dues for MiLB’s Project Brand.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

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