Smell the Change.
Laugh. Cheer. Oink.
Bacon is Better.
These are all mottos that Kurt Landes has embraced while bringing the zaniness of minor league baseball into the mainstream during his tenure as president and general manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Landes has established himself as one of the preeminent promoters in minor league baseball, beginning as a young GM with the Daytona Cubs and Hagerstown Suns before launching the IronPigs franchise in 2008. He has since become a trendsetter, building the IronPigs into one of the top draws in the minors while pushing the limits with creative promotions.
What follows is my conversation with Landes about his quick rise through the minors, how he approaches promotions and his philosophy for building a successful brand. His insight should be useful for anyone involved in marketing—whether in professional baseball or elsewhere. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
When did you decide that you want to work in minor league baseball? What about minor league baseball appealed to you as a career?
Like many high school kids, I was really involved in sports growing up, so I wanted to be involved in sports but I didn’t really know what that meant. I ended up going to Bowling Green State University in Ohio and doing a lot of different internships and practicums in different areas of sport, and one of those was with the Toledo Mud Hens. And I really enjoyed it and really gravitated toward using sport and entertainment collectively. I enjoyed that a lot.
The following year they asked me to come back full-time. And that was back in 1995. I cut my teeth and got my start with the Mud Hens in Ohio. I really understood how baseball and sport was a vehicle for entertainment and I really enjoyed that cross-section, and minor league baseball kind of hooked me at that point in time.
How did you ultimately break into the game? Where did you get your big break when getting started?
I remember I was in Toledo in ‘96. The Canton-Akron Indians came to tour the Mud Hens ballpark because we were using the ticket system that they were looking at for their new ballpark in Akron, Ohio. When they were there, they asked me what do you think about coming to Akron to be our director of ticket sales. That was a great opportunity for me to move up and take on more responsibility as we built and constructed the team and the brand. This was back in 1997 for Akron. Enjoyed that.
I was in Akron for five years back when Canal Park was completely brand new and at that point we were drawing over 500,000 to 550,000 fans a year. And that’s when I got noticed. There was an individual by the name of Andy Rayburn and he was a season-ticket holder and a client of mine in Cleveland. And he said, “Hey, someday I want to buy a minor league team. And when when I buy one, I want you to be the GM.” And I said all right. In my head, I’m thinking, whatever pal . . .
Sure enough, it wasn’t more than two or three weeks later that he bought the Daytona Cubs franchise and he said, “Come up and meet with me and we’ll talk about it.” So, I was expecting an interview and I never had an interview. It was just all about what we’re going to do when we get started there. I already had the job and didn’t realize it. That was my first opportunity as a general manager. I was 26 or 27. That was my first gig as a general manager in Daytona. I was there for about a year and a half.
That same owner, Andy Rayburn, purchased the Hagerstown Suns. I was fortunate enough to have success in the one year in Daytona. That franchise had lost money year in and year out and I got it back to break-even in one year and he was really happy with that. He bought Hagerstown and Hagerstown had been in the same scenario and I quickly turned around Hagerstown and made Hagerstown profitable when I was there.
Daytona was great and I learned a lot, but Hagerstown is probably where I really settled into the role and really started to feel comfortable being extremely creative and unique and kind of make it my own. And we did a lot of goofy, fun things that really helped create my persona and my philosophies and develop my leadership and what I thought about minor league baseball.
I’ve taken a lot of that from Hagerstown to [Lehigh Valley]. Even when we were starting up here in Lehigh Valley, I told people that I want us to be a Triple-A team with a Single A attitude. I didn’t want to be stuffy. I wanted us to try new things and new promotions and think out of the box and have fun and create that mindset here.
Before arriving to Triple-A, there were a lot of teams that I thought were too traditional. I don’t think that is the case now as much as it was 12 to 15 years ago. But it’s been great. It’s been great to have the resources and have the venue, the ownership that believe in that mindset. We’ve created that culture of unique creativity, fun, out-of-the-box thinking. That really even started with our logo development. We wanted something that is unique and out of the box and fun and fierce all at the same time, and came up with the IronPig. And that brand has been fantastic for us and has really set the tone for who we are as an organization.
In some ways your logo seemed to set the tone for other organizations as well. Offbeat and quirky logos and nicknames are pretty common now, with Brandiose leading the way. When you guys did it, it was unusual. How do you think that has influenced minor league baseball as a whole?
I think probably 12 years ago when we announced that name, minor league baseball as a whole probably wasn’t quite truly embracing that level of uniqueness. There weren’t Jumbo Shrimp at that point, and Baby Cakes and RubberDucks. I think minor league names were a little bit unique but not to the level that IronPigs probably busted out. We were probably one of the first franchises to really go hog wild—no pun intended there, I guess—and step completely outside the box and be edgy.
I know when we first did that, some teams were like, “Oh you’re trying too hard.” But when teams saw the success of our brand, and of our logo, and our working partners saw the same thing, I think a lot of people have copied that model in other places. Chuck Domino, who worked with me in the early stages of Lehigh Valley, he took that model and went to the [Richmond] Flying Squirrels and [Akron] RubberDucks and [Jacksonville] Jumbo Shrimp. That mindset really probably started here, that you can’t be too crazy or too goofy.
At that same point, I always thought that IronPigs was a fantastic name, not just because it was out of the box but it genuinely paid tribute to the [Lehigh] Valley here because you have this hard-working, blue collar steel industry that is such a part of the fabric of the community . . . It was such a huge, huge part of this community when they employed 35,000 to 40,000 employees at one point in time within this region. So, it still affects the psyche of the region right now. So for us to take the term pig iron and turn it around to IronPigs, I think a lot of people appreciate the backdrop to it.
Do you think that is why it did work, and there wasn’t just an eye-roll reaction from fans?
Well, we certainly had a fair share of people who thought we were idiots. It’s not uncommon for what happens today if you have a weird, odd name. We spent a lot of time collecting names and nicknames from the community, and having a name the team contest. And there was so much passion for what we were doing and excitement for what we were doing. But if it wasn’t your name, then it wasn’t the right name. So, it really caused a lot of dialogue and caused a lot of frustration because everyone thought they had the best name.
It’s the normal process. You announce the name and some people are like, uhh, I don’t like it and then they hear it more and more and they kind of see things that we are doing at the ballpark with it. And then you come out with the logo, and people either love or hate the logo, but more people come around to it. And by the time we got to Opening Day, people were wearing pig snouts on their faces walking around the ballpark. And they were fully bought into what we were doing.
Back then, as a true marketing effort, we wanted to get people to the ballpark as much as possible. Because specific to our market, there had been so many false starts with independent league ball and trying to bring minor league baseball here. A team had come here at one point and had gone bankrupt before even starting their first season in a half-built ballpark. So, we had to get people here during the construction process while the ballpark was being built so that they understood that this was something significant and not just a nice high school baseball field. So that was a huge part of our marketing campaign, besides being unique and edgy and being out in the community as much as possible . . .
Our owners, Joe Finley and Craig Stein, they made throughout the design process a lot of great decisions relative to the size of the ballpark and the different seating areas. Giving us the resources and the tools to each year add a new seating area or a new feature. They really believe in the ballpark being a part of the entertainment experience and allowing us to reinvest annually so that something is different each year for the guests, so you have something new and unique that keeps people coming back year after year. That has been a big part of our success over the course of 11 seasons, always making the ballpark a different experience.
Going back to the early part of your career, what was the biggest challenge when making the leap from a director position to a general manager role, like when you went from Akron to Daytona to Hagerstown?
I had the confidence that I could do it and Daytona was great because there were so little expectations. You could really try and do anything, and whatever we did was an improvement upon anything that had been done in the past. Jordan Kobritz had been the owner before I got there and Jordan and Debbie operated it as a mom and pop operation. And they were truly great people and they knew the organization could be more valuable and do more, but they just had other priorities. So when I arrived there to do giveaways, besides just two or three a year, and to do promotions between innings, and reach out to the community and get involved with the rotary, things that are commonplace now but just had never been in Daytona before, and just infusing some energy into that ballpark. And we did that right away.
[Longtime Florida State League operator] Buck Rogers was my AGM my first year as a GM, so we certainly had a lot of energy, ideas, excitement. It really helped tremendously in that market right away, and just people having meetings and learning about the club. It was very, very basic and primary, but it also helped set the path for me to understand what the blueprint was for me and to have a ground zero of building something from scratch—even though that ballpark had been there since the 1930s. So it was a very fun, stress-free environment to do anything and to see fruits from your labor. We threw a lot of mud against the wall that year, a lot of mud against the wall to see what worked and what wouldn’t.
And that helped me in Hagerstown. Hagerstown wasn’t quite the same as Daytona because they had been established there for a long time and there had been efforts in Hagerstown for a long time . . . When I got to Hagerstown, it wasn’t just getting Hagerstown caught up to what other teams were doing, it was actually just going beyond that with crazy and unique and fun things. That was the first time the industry took notice of things that Hagerstown was doing because we were doing some things out of the box.
In Hagerstown you played in one of the oldest ballparks in the minors, which is quite different than what you are doing now in Lehigh Valley. What challenges did that present in running a team and drawing fans?
It’s been interesting because I’ve worked in Akron, which was brand new when I worked there . . . And then I worked in Daytona and Hagerstown, [which are two of the oldest] ballparks in the country. And then to come here to Lehigh Valley to work in a brand new facility. So, I’ve either had the oldest or the youngest, and really no in between.
The challenges in the old ballpark, again, you’re just trying to create energy with your community, create energy with your fans and even your staff. There are some things about the old ballparks that are great, and you just have to accentuate those things and get other people to buy in that it’s great even though it is old. In Hagerstown, we had a miserable old scoreboard that kept breaking down. We couldn’t afford to get a new one and the old one wasn’t working, but we could afford to spend, in partnership with the city, I think it was $12,000 for a new manual scoreboard. But then we highlighted it. It was great to have a manual scoreboard. And we had a character that we created called the Scoreboard Cowboy, and he would do a dance everytime we put up a run. And you embraced it. And I think that is what we tried to do in Hagerstown or even Daytona.
In Hagerstown, we had a “Feed Your Face” Monday promotion and we actually raised all ticket prices on Mondays to $15, but once you got inside the ballpark you could eat as much as you wanted for free on Mondays. I couldn’t do that here, I just couldn’t do it logistically in our ballpark. But when you only have 250 season-ticket holders and 2,000 seats in Hagerstown and you’re drawing 500 people on Monday tops, you let everyone in, you charge more, and Mondays would end up being, outside of Thursdays and Fridays, our biggest night of the week.
I would invite all of the local restaurants to come in and give out samples of their food, so I made sure all of the fans that came into the ballpark on a Monday would have to walk by all of these restaurants giving out samples of their food before you got to the concession stands. I wanted them to fill up on the food that we weren’t paying for before they got to the food that we were paying for. And it worked. We had eight to 10 restaurants on a Monday night handing out free samples. We only ever spent the same amount through our concessions as you would for a normal night, and we were making $15 a ticket instead of $5, $6, $7.
Those are things you can do to be creative and go for it that you can’t do here as much. And I shouldn’t say can’t do here as much, you just have different resources available to you. There are things you can do here that we could never do in Hagerstown. You couldn’t have a microsite for pigsfoodfinder.com or for baconvstacos.com, because those things cost money and every little penny is critical in Hagerstown and Daytona.
Are there any promotions from back in those days that really didn’t work?
There are always things that didn’t work. There are some things that I probably couldn’t do now. I had a Fastest Fat Man Competition when I was trying to help out a local health and fitness location. I don’t think I could have a Fastest Fat Man Competition in 2018 like I did in 2004.
We had some things that were fun but probably weren’t successful. We had a Japanese intern in Hagerstown that was lonely, genuinely lonely and always trying to find ways to date girls. So we thought we would help him and developed a website called loveyoshi.com. His name was Yoshi. And that failed. He never found love.
Back then, we had another intern who was willing to eat ballpark food all summer long. We had Ballpark Size Me and we had an intern who all summer long would eat nothing but ballpark food and try and gain some promotion like that. And you might have some fun things like that, that might have gotten a little bit of love, but those are promotions that didn’t really work in mainstream. Those are the types of things that you tried because, in the small market, anytime you can generate free publicity is great because you just don’t have the budget to generate much on your own, unless it was trade. So to really communicate to your fans, you’re out of the box, you’re crazy, you’re different, you’re unique and fun. That baseline for even what we do now started in Hagerstown because you had to generate publicity and buzz about your venue, your ballpark and your product like that in order to have a chance to get yourself above water.
Lehigh Valley has certainly had its share of successful ballpark promotions, including bigger picture ones like its embracing of all things bacon, to specific themes, like the Urinal Games, and most recently courting LeBron. In your opinion, what are the key components to a good ballpark promotion? Is there a common ingredient to a successful promotion?
I think there are two different types of promotions for us. There is a thing like LeBron James that is an idea and it comes up quickly and you have to be willing to take advantage of it when you hear about it. The idea for LeBron James, from start to finish, there wasn’t a lot of time. It is kind of a pop culture event that comes up quickly and you can get some buzz and PR from it if you act quickly.
Back when I was in Hagerstown, I think [the Phillies sold] Citizens Bank Park naming rights for something crazy for back then like $95 million. We had a sponsor who said I wish I could spend $95 million to make a name for myself and make a splash. We came up with the idea of while I can’t sell it to you for $95 million and you can’t afford naming rights in Hagerstown, I’ll sell naming rights to the field for $95 for one week and we’ll do a one-week promotion. And that hit the papers and the AP wire and went around the country. That small promotion of doing naming rights promotions for $95 was kind of a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that we do things differently in Hagerstown than in Philadelphia. But that sponsor had a lot of love just because we did that for $95 for one week . . .
It’s just about seizing opportunities when they become open. In Hagerstown, we rained out the first three days of the season one year. And being the Suns, for Game Four we had enough. We changed our name to the Raindrops until we finally played a regulation game. So that is just taking advantage of an opportunity when you have something real quick like LeBron James.
But the other type of promotions are the ones that, for it to be successful, you really have to plan out and do correctly. So, if it is the Smell the Change campaign with the bacon-themed jerseys, and Bacon USA and bacon stripe on the hat. Or if it’s Bacon vs. Tacos or the Salute to Philly Night, which we [changed our name to the] Cheesesteaks. Between the bacon and the Cheesesteaks, that really started the whole process across minor league baseball of doing food monikers. Those were a little more thought out, planned out. You have a microsite. You have a careful run out of the logo and the brand. So I guess it is a combination of intense planning and thought to do it right versus also having to seize the opportunity when you see it and go for it.
The Hands Free Urinal Games, that is one of the hugest things we have done here. And that was planned out for two years. It took us a long time to find someone that had the product or could build the product. That idea we had for at least two or three years before we could introduce it.
Where did that idea come from? How did you come up with the Urinal Games idea?
That idea was born out of a conversation between myself and Matt Zidik, who at the time was our director of creative sources who now holds the same position for the Pirates. Matt and I were at a retreat one year and were just joking around. Part of my philosophy has always been this total fan participation and you analyze every aspect of your ballpark and how you make it more interactive for your fans. It might be having a glass window through your press box so people can see the PA announcer or more fans involved in the game script, saying play ball or doing an inning on the PA.
That conversation happened at a retreat early on, in 2010 probably. So we’re analyzing every aspect of our operation: How can it be more interactive or visible for our fans? We took it to our restrooms. All right, what can we do in the restrooms to make it really unique compared to everyone else? And that was as interactive as we could get, where we could have a promotion at the urinal.
Back then we were thinking about when you go to a carnival and you aim for the clown’s face with a water pistol and try to make the balloon blow up bigger or make the horse race further, that was the initial concept. If you could aim for a trigger at the bottom of the urinal and you could make your horse or whatever it was race the fastest of the five urinals in front of you. That was the initial idea. And we tried to actually get the idea patented and come up with a mechanism. It just got expensive. We were relatively young guys in baseball, to go through patent law and find a concept and get something created, and it kind of fell apart. We said all right, we’re going to keep at it.
And we actually found a company in London that was developing a similar concept but it was more digital, with a screen in front of you where you would see the contest take place hands-free. We said once you develop this and once you’re ready to bring it to the States, we want to be the first ones to have it. It kind of went dark for a year and all of a sudden a year later they contacted us and said we’re ready to go to the States. So we were the first ones in the States to have that hands-free urinal gaming system. We took it a step further and had a urologist sponsor it. That was a great, great promotion. It was fun, unique. That really emphasized all the main things we try to do that is out of the box.
Is there a direct payoff for something like that, like the Urinal Games, or is doing it just another way to help build your brand?
I think it is mostly building our brand, although I swear when we had that our beer and soda per caps were higher. There were definitely people who play the game and would want to play the game again, and I think it helped us with beverage sales in the ballpark.
Electronically, you would be provided a nickname on the screen. It would make up a six digit word like “window.” Congratulations, Window. This is your score. You hit 12 out of 15 penguins on the slide going down the mountainside as you were aiming for them on the screen. And then you could go to the website, punch in your name “window” then attach your real name to it. Then we would take those electronic names and place them up on the videoboard, and say Congratulations, Josh Leventhal, you are the first-place finisher in tonight’s Urinal Games. People would want to go back and play because they would want to win it again.
You mentioned that when you first came to Triple-A that it was a little more conservative. How have you seen the business of minor league baseball change since you started a couple decades ago?
I think major league baseball has changed, too. There is a lot more flexibility with ticket pricing and dynamic pricing and theme nights that you have never seen [major league] teams do. How they integrate tickets and merchandise and food and beverage into their packages. I think for a long time major league baseball was very vanilla.
And I think just because of a generation of people that were running Triple-A franchises, I think there were many Triple-A franchises that were focused on baseball. And baseball is always the focus of who we are and what we do, and there are so many die-hard fans that are tremendous and want the baseball experience, but to truly be successful and to have as many fans in your market as possible, you have to market to the people who aren’t baseball fans. I’m a broken record here: It’s your venue. It’s your promotions. You want people to come here and have a great time even if they don’t know the score of the game.
It was probably 10 to 12 years ago when some Triple-A teams were starting to go a different path, but there were still a lot of traditional teams that focused on baseball and players and championships. Again, you don’t let go of those things because they are important to many people, but you just build upon that foundation with so many other things that make your ballpark exciting to go to and for people to be fans.
A lot of people say, “I’m not a fan of baseball.” I say, well perfect. You’re ours. You’ll be a fan of the IronPigs then. You’re qualified. And they’re confused and you explain to them and they give it a try. And they follow-up and they’re like, “You know what Kurt, you’re right. I watched one inning of baseball. I was so busy getting this food item, or at the playground with the kids, or doing this or that. I never thought about it in that concept before.”
Baseball, even though it has gotten better and better and better, I think overall there are still people that are in their homes saying “I’m not really a fan of the game. I’m not going to go to this minor league team or that minor league team.” We found that once we get people here they come back. And that is still the case today.
What sort of tips would you give someone trying to work their way up the ladder with a team? Has that process changed since you started?
There is always going to be room for people to make an impression, people to volunteer and learn about other departments, and to be the first one in and the last one out. Those are things that I recognize and see as a manager that still leads you to be impressed with somebody and want to keep them and promote them and have them continue to work within your organization . . .
My advice is just put your head down and work hard and don’t always just accept one answer. There is always a different way to go through brainstorming or being a critical thinker, there are different ways to create revenue and different ways to skin the cat, as it were. Depending upon who your supervisor is, or depending upon your ballpark, there is always a way to get that group to the ballpark or a way to make that promotion work, even if it has to change a little bit because of your budget or your limitations or your venue.