How To Market Like The Fresno Grizzlies: A Chat With Sam Hansen

Sam Hansen is the creative brain behind the Fresno Grizzlies’ many unique and trendsetting promotions. 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 creating the popular local Taco Truck Throwdown, to converting the team’s furry mascot Parker into an ordained minister.

Sam Hansen
Fresno Grizzlies Director of Marketing Sam Hansen shows off a “nunchuck churro” from a recent promotion.

What follows is the second part of my conversation with Hansen about how the team comes up with so many popular promotions and how he got involved in minor league baseball. Part One of our conversation can be found here. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.

What is the creative process like for creating some of these promotions that Fresno puts on? Does it differ depending on the type of promotion, like an offbeat pop culture promotion or a bobblehead or food specialty?

For promotions like “Coming to Fresno,” it is obviously going through a list of anniversaries and finding one that has legs and that has the potential for all of those immersive experiences that I was talking about. But then also, we have full staff creative meetings where we have people throw out ideas for theme nights and also for giveaways and promotions in general. I ask all of the front office to bring at least three different ideas: one for a theme night, one for a giveaway and one for an in-game element that we do throughout the season. When we do that, it is all very rooted around potential for sponsorship and then also ability to sell groups. So, I’ll have this front office brainstorming session, usually with about 30 people, where we write down all of these ideas and build out on upon them . . .

Fresno Grizzlies Coming to America Promotion

As you can imagine, we have a lot of weird ideas that make their way on the list. Like for example, game show night made its way through the filtration process right down to the end. The Frisco RoughRiders had a game show night promotion that was immersive. I think inbetween every inning it was very family friendly. When it came all the way down to it, our game show night got the ax because we don’t have the videboard for it. We don’t have the capabilities on our videboard that Frisco does. So sometimes it is just what you can actually execute. So that one got chopped off right at the 10-yard line but Bruce Lee-Chuck Norris made it onto the promo schedule.

When do those front office meetings begin?

We’re having them now. I’ve been having them since July. So pretty much as soon as we get our promo schedule out, we’re promoting and ramping up for Opening Day. Out here in California, it’s a little different than the East Coast from what I understand. We try to get as many people in the park early, in April, May and early June, because after that is when the weather starts heating up. So our Julys are not our big season for us, we start losing walk-up because of the heat. So we really ramp up and put a lot of weight and our better promotions early in the promo schedule to get more people to come out. So in July our grind is going to get people to come out to the park, but at that point also we’re plotting out a rough outline for what our promo schedule is going to look like the next season.

Fresno Grizzlies' Chukchansi Park
Fresno Grizzlies’ Chukchansi Park

That’s interesting. So even though school is still in session in April and May, that’s still your busy season?

Yeah, and that’s another thing I learned from being in the retail industry and sneakers and dealing with apparel is that I had to place all of my orders for the fall in the spring, and I placed all of my orders for the following spring in the fall. So while both seasons are going on, I have some of my best focus groups there in the stadium. I’m seeing what kids are gravitating toward, seeing what sort of things are peaking people’s interest during the season and I am also evaluating if it is going to have shelf life until the following season.

To be a really good director of marketing, you really have to understand culture, especially your local culture. So I’m constantly evaluating pop culture in general and cross-referencing that with local culture and trying to predict if there is going to be shelf life in a particular thing. We could use fidget spinners as an example. When that big craze blew up, we had a lot of people say we’ve got to get fidget spinners. So when we had those meetings and we’re talking about potential giveaways for the following year, everyone in 2017 was saying fidget spinners for a giveaway in 2018. Because I’ve seen things like that happen before and I know the shelf life of a beanie baby in 2008 is a lot shorter than it is now in 2018, I knew that fidget spinners weren’t going to be a prudent choice for a giveaway in 2018. Sometimes it’s very hard to be able to have the numbers and the facts to support those decisions and sometimes you just really have to stick to your guns and trust your gut on that sort of thing.

You talk a lot about your background in retail. How did that lead you to minor league baseball? How did you end up with the Grizzlies?

I owned a store here in Fresno and I got a cease-and-desist letter from the Fresno Grizzlies because a T-shirt design that we had done for a local musician/skateboarder. It was a Bart Simpson character. When I was a kid, the bootleg Bart Simpson was everywhere. The Bart Simpson-Rickey Henderson T-shirts or the Bart Simpson as MC Hammer saying Can’t Touch This. I loved all of those bootleg Bart Simpson shirts.

So around 2009-2010, a young man [named Fashawn] from here in Fresno, he had a pretty popular rap mixtape that was circulating and one of the songs on it was called Black Bart Simpson. When I talked to him, I pulled out some of these old Bart Simpson T-shirts. I had a Jose Canseco one and Jordan bootleg Bart Simpson shirts. So I said have you ever seen these where they make black versions of Bart Simpson. And he said, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen these before.” And I said we should make one of you. So I did a bootleg Bart Simpson of him.

Fresno rapper Fashawn

He being from Fresno and being very proud to be from Fresno, always wore Fresno Grizzlies hats and Fresno Grizzlies T-shirts. One of his mixtapes was called Grizzlies City. So I noticed that the younger kids were using the Fresno Grizzlies as regional pride. It was becoming cool to wear Fresno Grizzlies stuff. I also noticed that when you went into the Fresno Grizzlies team store, not only was there not any embracement of it but it also looked like they were trying to distance themselves from it. I was selling these T-shirts that had a Bart Simpson. So, I was infringing on the Simpsons copyright and I was using Fresno Grizzlies. And I got a cease and desist letter from the Fresno Grizzlies.

So I went down to the stadium and I met with the marketing department, and we had a real in-depth conversation about Fresno culture. I told them about what was going on, and this urban youth culture in general and about how I thought they were leaving a lot of money on the table. They said we want you to stop doing these Simpsons T-shirts, but we will do an official collaboration piece with you and Fashawn. So we did this collaboration with New Era that we knew was going to resonate not only with Fresno but also sneaker collectors because we also had it coincide with an Air Jordan that was coming out. We sold 144 of them in a matter of hours. Kids lined up.

The guys at the Grizzlies asked me if I wanted to be a consultant. The person who was running the team store couldn’t wrap her head around treating merchandise like a brand. The approach was that of a gift store, very novelty-driven, which I wasn’t opposed to. I wanted to keep that product niche, I just wanted to add design and elements that would also make it more like a sportswear brand. In order to do that, I needed to run the whole show. It became too draining, fighting the person who was there.

Fresno Grizzlies Team Store

So I started off directing merchandise, and they needed a graphic designer, and I’ve done a lot of graphic design work in my old career, so I took a position as a graphic designer. So in the marketing department, I was in those meetings being one of the people contributing ideas for theme nights and promos that have the potential for walk-up. That is when I suggested the Taco Truck Throwdown. That was very successful and each year that taco event started growing and growing and it got to the point where one night after the event we jokingly said, “Gosh, I don’t think anyone here even knows the score of the game. People care more about tacos than they do baseball.” And we said we might as well change our name to the Tacos. And that was one of those aha moments, where we were like, “Oh, OK.” And you know the story from there.

My background of being able to get as close to the edge as possible definitely helps be able to create promotions that other teams might not think to do. Everyone always says that to be a great marketer you have to be able to think out of the box. I’ve always sort of disagreed with that. I never really think outside of the box, I just think toward the edges of the box. When you are thinking outside of the box, the stuff rarely gets done. I know stuff inside the box you can actually execute it, you can deliver it. So I definitely think inside the box, I just think toward the edges where others aren’t thinking.

And that idea works well with Minor League Baseball, which when done well operates in a similar way.

I closed my store in 2011 and dedicated myself to the Fresno Grizzlies because I felt they had the greatest platform to help build Fresno. I want to dedicate myself to the greater good of Fresno and to the culture of Central California. I closed my store and dedicated myself to the Fresno Grizzlies’ cause. When I first did that, I was working with great guys who loved baseball and were super passionate about the industry, but at least at a Triple-A level they were using terms like bush league. “Oh, we can’t do that promotion, that’s bush league.” And they were saying, “we’re Triple-A, we have to hold ourselves up to a major league standard. And that’s just too goofy. Nobody would do that in Triple-A.”

And now more and more you’re starting to see big league teams do some of these, as the world calls them, out-of-the-box promotions. When I first started in 2011, you weren’t seeing things like that. When I started working with the Grizzlies they were a Giants affiliate, and you never would have thought you would see them do a Full House promo. Now that’s pretty commonplace. I have never wanted to apologize being minor league baseball, [where you have] somebody throwing out a first pitch in a tutu, pie in the face, this slapstick family entertainment.  

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