The Fresno Grizzlies rank among minor league baseball’s most creative and trend-setting teams. The fad of teams transforming their names into a favorite concession item? That began with the Fresno Tacos, which grew out of the team’s often-replicated Taco Truck Throwdown promotion.
Sam Hansen is the person behind the concept and creation of these promotions and a long list of others that has helped the Grizzlies make local and national headlines each season. As the Grizzlies’ director of marketing, Hansen has developed promotions ranging from the celebration of pop-culture hit movies like “Good Burger” and “Coming to America” to converting the team’s furry mascot Parker into an ordained minister.
What follows is Part One of my conversation with Hansen about the art of minor league promotions, how Fresno has turned into one of the premier marketing franchises in professional sports and how he got his start. Part Two of our conversation will follow in this space next week. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
In your mind, what are the ingredients of a successful promotion? What qualities do you like to see in a promotion?
I particularly like to have something that will obviously have walk-up [sales] potential but also have group elements attached to it. Then the ability to tie-in an on-field element to it with theme jerseys, so you can have a merchandise component and then the ability to work in food.
For example last night, we did a Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris theme night. We were able to cover all of those bases for the most part. It was group driven because our sales guys targeted people in the martial arts industry, so we had a lot of karate schools and jujitsu schools. We also invited members from those groups to come out and participate in in-game entertainment between innings, so they were doing demonstrations [on the field]. A lot of times when you have a theme night that is rooted around groups, it can turn out to be a theme that is not very palatable for walk-up. We’ve all seen promotions like Dental Awareness Night, when we want to get the dentists out, but you don’t really have a lot of pizzazz there for walk-up tickets . . .
For the Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris night, we also had a lot of walk-up because we created a sort of stadium rivalry with Team Bruce and Team Chuck. So we had themed T-shirts that you could buy a walk-up ticket pack for also. We had that element. Then we had a lot of videoboard slides and things that were themed around Chuck Norris memes and Bruce Lee philosophical quotes. Obviously, we had merchandise that was themed around the promotion. And we had food elements. We created nunchuck churros, so basically we ran a string through some churros and cut the churro in half. I like promotions that you can expand all of the different elements as such.
There are a lot of moving parts in a promotion like that, with a lot of different departments involved. How challenging is it to coordinate something like that?
It’s pretty challenging. Obviously, you cannot do that every night, so you just have to make your big nights bigger. We didn’t do that [promotion] on a Friday or a Saturday. We did it on Thursday, which aren’t our biggest nights but Thursdays has the potential to bring out younger people, and we sort of placed this promotion there. The Chuck Norris meme element was obviously meant to bring out a younger drinking crowd, I guess you would say. But then also the karate elements were targeting the kids, and obviously the parents have to come with the kids.
Most of our promotions have those elements now. If you were to throw out any type of theme to me, I am going to try to make sure all of those different elements are covered. I feel like when I first got into the marketing department, I was very walk-up driven. That was the thing I was tasked with. They felt that I was one of the better people in our organization to come up with themes that have the potential to sell walk-up tickets. To be honest, I was more concerned with having people walk-up so that they could purchase merchandise. I come from a retail background and the sports sneaker industry has done a great job of creating these themed sneakers throughout the last 20 years that have created demand for people to want to camp out to get a hold of these sneakers.
When I started working with the Grizzlies, I saw that we were having people camp out for bobbleheads. And that started losing its luster right around when I started working for the Grizzlies in 2011. Right around that time I noticed that just the standard bobblehead really wasn’t moving the needle like it had been years before that. I noticed that it was requiring us to put a spin on the bobblehead; you could no longer do a Buster Posey bobblehead, it needed to be a Buster Posey “Game of Thrones” themed bobblehead. I started telling people that I worked with that we could apply this to merchandise in our store and it doesn’t have to be a giveaway. We can get people to line up and sleep out just for the opportunity to pay for something and also buy a ticket to get in. So we started applying that sneaker boutique philosophy and spread it to our promotions in general.
One of the other elements that makes a good a promotion is an element of nostalgia. Some of our more successful promotions have been something that is nostalgic for parents but also is topical or trending for kids also. Obviously, Ninja Turtles and 80’s cartoons that have been rebooted in a current form so that kids are interested, those provide real good opportunity for those elements that I described.
We did a promo with Nickelodeon and it was an anniversary of the movie Good Burger, so we brought out Kel and we transformed our concession stands into Good Burger. So you could buy Good Burger and buy orange soda and have that immersive experience . . . People loved that immersive experience of Good Burger. Most teams have focused a lot more of late on themed jerseys and drawing the attention of the promotion onto the field and it is not as giveaway driven as when I first entered the industry.
So, for the Good Burger promotion, fans loved the immersive experience of watching the game and seeing our team playing as Good Burger with Good Burger themed uniforms and our opponents playing as Mondo Burger, which was obviously the rival of Good Burger in the movie. Then all of the in-game elements themed around the movie and having the appearance of one of the movie’s stars doing the in-game stuff and having clips of the movie being played on the videoboard and then being able to get up and go to the concession stand and eat at Good Burger, because we had transformed the concession stand into Good Burger. Then being able to go to the concession and buy merchandise, it was just a completely immersive experience for the fans there.
Of course, right after that happened I started racking my brain of what else could I do this with. I ran through the list of fictitious restaurants in my mind, and the first one that popped up was McDowell’s, from Coming to America. We did the Good Burger promo in 2016 and I had everything dialed in and were ready to do the Coming to America promo in 2017, but the 30-year anniversary of Coming to America was coming up in 2018, and there would be a lot more stuff going on in the media and pop culture in general that would stir up nostalgia and tributes for the movie in 2018.
So, I held off a whole season on this promotion that was pretty well dialed in and ready to go. And sure enough, in 2018 you started seeing more tributes being done and references being made toward the movie, and that got people my age sharing the movie with their kids and started seeing a lot more young people getting interested in references from that movie. And that worked because it had all those nostalgia elements that I was talking about.
With it being the 30th anniversary of the movie, were you concerned that another team would pick up the idea and do it themselves, or does that even matter?
I was, to be honest with you. And there are only a few teams that I really worry about. And when the Charleston Riverdogs released their Cool Runnings jerseys, right when I saw the image of those colors, because they are the same colors that the fictitious Kingdom of Zamunda, my heart skipped a beat. I was like, “Oh my gosh, no. Nate [Kurant] beat me to it.”
Thank goodness it wasn’t. For the most part, I knew that there were only going to be a few teams that would be able to execute like we do, so I wasn’t really worried about it . . . I of course was worried about the Brooklyn Cyclones beating us to the punch. And, like I said, I was worried about the Riverdogs beating us to the punch, too. Even if it does happen, where we have the same promo, I know that our fans are going to appreciate the experience just because of the level of detail that we put into promotions . . .
As soon as I saw the social media post about the Cool Runnings jersey, I immediately emailed Nate, and said “Oh man, my heart just skipped a beat. I thought you guys just beat us to the punch on Coming to America.” I did share it with a few other teams. I emailed Billy [Harner] from Brooklyn in 2017 and said, “Hey man, we’re going to do this. Are you thinking about doing it?” And he said, no, that they had thought of it, of course, but that they were not thinking of doing a Coming to America promotion.
To be honest, I could see why. I wasn’t convinced of the promo. Also, I always try to make sure that it is going to resonate with Fresno first. I know a lot of people in Fresno believe that we set out to try to get national attention for our promotions. It is completely untrue. We first and foremost want to make sure that the promotion is going to be well-received by the Fresno market. I wasn’t sure if Coming to America was going to be received well in Fresno. I love the movie. I said before in another interview, that I try very hard not to fall in love with our own ideas. The purpose of a marketer is to send a message or tell a story that resonates with the people who have the highest potential to give your brands life, not to please yourself and not create product that you want but create something that is going to resonate with your base. I love Salt ‘n Vinegar potato chips, but Fresno is definitely a Flaming Hot Cheetos market.
So, I wanted to make sure that Coming to America had legs in this market, so that is another reason that I sat on it for a little while. In L.A., they have this monthly event that takes place at the Hollywood Cemetery. They play a classic movie and then they have music and a DJ and guests that were involved in the movie come up and tell stories between parts of the movie. And they had a Coming to America night, and people from all over, I had talked to friends from Fresno who were making costumes and driving three hours to L.A. for this event. Whenever I started seeing pictures of the turnout for this event, I said OK, Fresno will definitely walk up for this.
For Coming to America, we didn’t target a lot of groups. It wasn’t industry specific for groups, but the sponsor of the night was the visitors bureau. For legal reasons, we changed it to Coming to Fresno instead of Coming to America and were contacted by this group, Play Fresno, the visitors bureau, because they liked this whole theme of coming to Fresno because this event also brought a lot of people from outside Fresno to Fresno to take part in this experience.
So, I guess that is where I see ourselves going as far as the Fresno Grizzlies. At one point, we kind of looked at other cities to see what we could take from them and bring back to Fresno, by going to the Promo Seminar and what have you, and now we’re a little more focused on just what can we harness locally here that already exists that will make people from other cities come to Fresno.