Pat O’Conner’s message at the Opening Session of the Winter Meetings last December at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort was similar to ones he had given each of the previous 10 years as president of Minor League Baseball. Speaking to an almost entirely white and majority male audience of minor league owners and executives, O’Conner stressed the need to diversify, both in the front office and stands, or teams will face the risk of being left behind in an increasing multicultural world.
“If you are not actively engaged in diversifying your staff, you are not preparing for your future,” O’Conner said, pointing out that 28 percent of the sport’s 160 teams play in markets with minority populations of at least 50 percent. “If you are not developing marketing campaigns to effectively cultivate the minority populations in your market, you are missing significant revenue opportunities and you are not preparing for your future.”
The refrain, O’Conner admits, has not been heeded as much as he would like. However, this time he had proof to back up his talk. In 2017, four minor league teams participated in a multicultural marketing program tailored to their Hispanic and Latino communities called “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan,” which translates to and paralleled the sport’s “It’s Fun to be a Fan” campaign.
The initiative worked, with the teams devoting either entire homestands or multiple nights toward directly attracting Latino and Hispanic fans to the ballpark, resulting in a spike in attendance and revenue.
“The success of the test has clubs lining up to participate [in 2018] to further expand our reach in this lucrative aspect of our business,” O’Conner told the audience. “Similar programs are in the pipeline as we grow in the knowledge that, as an organization, we grossly underutilize our market cap through a lack of diversity and inclusion in our business model.”
The “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan” promotion has grown from the 24 nights hosted by the original four teams in 2017 — the Charlotte Knights (International), Las Vegas 51s (Pacific Coast), Visalia Rawhide (California) and Kane County Cougars (Midwest) — into the “Copa de la Diversión,” which translates to “Fun Cup” and will include 160 games hosted by 33 teams this season. A championship cup will travel to each of the teams’ ballparks for the special event as part of the “Gira de la Copa” — or Cup Tour.
Teams can put their own twist on the event to appeal to their local community, and last month each team introduced a special alternate team identity as part of the promotion, ranging from the Cielo Azul de Oklahoma City to the Memphis Música to the San Antonio Flying Chanclas. Behind the creative names and flashy designs is a financial goal shared by each team: to tap a new revenue stream by attracting a more diverse fan base to the ballpark, and adjust the makeup of the staff to better represent their community.
“The four-team pilot program did open our eyes to opportunities,” said Kurt Hunzeker, Minor League Baseball’s vice president of marketing strategy and research, who began working on the program three years ago after coming to MiLB from Rawlings. “From a local market impact, teams have looked at their staff and said, ‘Do we truly look like our community, and if not, let’s fix that.’”
A Whirlwind Introduction
Jennifer Reynolds was busy planning for hosting the California League all-star game just days before the start of the 2017 season when she got an offer that she couldn’t refuse, but admittedly was a little afraid to accept. Hunzeker had reached out to the Visalia Rawhide general manager to ask if her team would like to participate in the flagship “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan” program, which had been in the planning stages for three years but was test-launched just prior to the 2017 season. Reynolds saw value in the promotion and was confident Visalia, whose population is nearly 50 percent Hispanic, would be a good fit. She also saw the California League all-star game brightly marked on her calendar a few months away.
“It was such a good idea, how could you say no?” Reynolds said. “I told him we’re on board, but call me again after the all-star game and we’ll talk details.”
Hunzeker didn’t pick Visalia, or the other three pilot teams, randomly out of a hat. Rather each one fit a specific market that could be replicated by other minor league franchises. Minor League Baseball conducted an audit of each of its 160 franchises, using 14 different metrics ranging from the size of the local Hispanic community to whether the team knows how large a percentage of their ticket buyers are Hispanic to whether the team has a strategic marketing plan. Minor League Baseball then divided the teams into four distinct markets for the campaign: a large market with a distinct Hispanic community (Las Vegas), a large market with an emerging Hispanic community (Charlotte), a suburban market with a Hispanic community (Kane County) and a small town with a Hispanic community (Visalia).
“We did a lot of the homework on the front end. We did a lot of the organizing,” Hunsicker said. “The lifting is on the individual clubs. They’re not forced to do anything.”
Same Team, New Approach
Reynolds called her staff together after agreeing to participate in “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan” last year and started with the basics. How many people, she asked, speak Spanish? In a town so diverse, certainly several people would be fluent.
“Nobody raised their hand,” she said.
That was an eye-opening realization for Reynolds, particularly since many staff members come from a multi-generational Hispanic heritage. How could the team serve the community, she wondered, without representing them?
“It helped us understand who is in our front office and how you reflect the community that you are in,” said Reynolds, who has since hired a fluent staff member to help market the team. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Reynolds said that the team already had a pretty significant following in the Hispanic community but not with the migrant farm workers, who she said have recently immigrated from Mexico and speak little-to-no English. The team partnered with the local chamber of commerce to help reach that community and rebranded themselves as the Los Toros de Visalia for the four-game, weekend homestand.
Reynolds described the event as special, and not only because attendance doubled compared to the same series the previous year. The team dedicated the series to the memory of Ray “Cuco” Serrato, a former local parks and rec employee who played a key role in bringing professional baseball to town. “His whole family came to one of the games,” Reynolds said. “There was over 200 of them. It was incredible.”
The Toros had a “Taquiza y Toros” theme for the weekend, with three different taco vendors around the ballpark, several fruit carts with “mind-blowing” fruit carvings, mariachi bands and dancers, and dancing horses.
“It was a great first year [of the event],” Reynolds said. “It’s not a secret that a lot of players are from Latino communities, so the players really got behind it too and helped with the promotional material. And because it was a strong name, they got behind that too. It really ended up being a celebration.”
The other three pilot teams reported similar results, and all four will be participating this season. Kane County drew almost 10,000 fans for each of its games. The team promoted by putting up billboards in Spanish in high-traffic areas around town. They displayed the flags of every Latino nation represented on the team. The team held pregame concerts, performances from traditional mariachi bands and Ballet Folklorico, as well as a variety of specialty food promotions. Hunzeker said the experience changed not only how the team approaches this promotion, but the season as a whole.
“If you commit to this and plan accordingly and allocate a representative budget to the community, then the results kind of speak for themselves,” Hunzeker said. “I asked [Kane County general manager Curtis Haug] how many games they are going to have this year [with this promotion]. He said 70. When your fan base is more than 30 percent Hispanic, you have to adapt to your elements . . . It took them four games to get there. The results were more than definitive.”