Minor league promotions and giveaways keep fans coming back

wrupard@newsobserver.comJuly 28, 2013 

On a humid Saturday night, the Reynolds family made its first trip to Five County Stadium this season.

The Carolina Mudcats were sitting in last place in the Carolina League, but the game on the field was the last thing on the mind of the two kids, Adam and Emily.

Adam, 9, and Emily, 7, were one of the first 1,200 children through the gates that evening and received the giveaway for the night.

Adam had his draped over his shoulders like a track and field athlete would after winning Olympic gold, while Emily waved hers more like a Pittsburgh Steelers’ fan would a Terrible Towel.

“I like it,” said Adam, 9. “I think it’s cool.”

But it wasn’t a flag and it wasn’t a rally towel.

The children that evening received pillowcases. A thin, white cloth pillowcase with the Mudcats logo plastered where a young fan would lay his head and dream about baseball.

“We want something enjoyable for everyone who comes to our games,” said Sean Nickelsen, director of group sales and marketing for the Carolina Mudcats. “We try to think of things that get everyone involved, whether that be a pillowcase for the kids or wine for the adults.”

While the recent pillowcase giveaway in Zebulon is unique, it’s not unheard of, however. Just this year the Harrisburg Senators gave away a Bryce Harper pillowcase. At a game in 2008, the Kane County Cougars set the world record for largest pillow fight.

But behind the wacky, wild, fun, crazy, silly and sometimes inappropriate promotions, minor league teams have a simple goal: provide entertainment.

“Unlike Major League Baseball, where it’s more about the players and the superstar athletes, Minor League Baseball is more about family, fun and entertainment,” said Jared Weymeir, director of promotions for the Hickory Crawdads. “We want to provide as much entertainment as we possibly can.”

The San Jose Giants hosted Lennay Keekua Night, in honor of Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o’s “girlfriend.”

The Omaha Storm Chasers had a George Brett bobble-arms giveaway in honor of the Hall of Famer’s flailing arms during the 1983 “Pine Tar” game.

The Richmond Flying Squirrels had an appearance from Larry Thomas. Never heard of him? He was better known as “The Soup Nazi” from “Seinfeld.”

All of those were just in April and May.

“People just want to be entertained,” said Ben Hill, a writer for MILB.com. “Entertainment is how Minor League Baseball survives.”

Hill’s “Promo Preview” article on MILB.com highlights the most intriguing promotions and giveaways from games during the upcoming week. Last week, Hill featured the Orem Owlz trying to break the world record for most people wearing sunglasses at night; the Mahoning Valley Scrappers having Zombie Survival Night; and the Lowell Spinners giving away bobbleheads of famous poet Jack Kerouac dressed in his Lowell High School football uniform.

“At its core, Minor League Baseball wants to be all things to all people,” Hill said. “It tries to get as many people in the ballpark and then surround people with appealing things and family-friendly entertainment.”

Hill travels the country to visit minor league ballparks and says he sees each team as a representation of the community that it’s in. The game day antics and promotions are a way to bring that to the forefront.

“Every team is a reflection of an area, and collectively they’re a reflection of America,” Hill said.

An example of this would be the recent popularity of costumed racers. With the success of the Milwaukee Brewers’ famous racing sausages, some teams have brought out their own version. The Pittsburgh Pirates have the Great Pierogi Race and the Washington Nationals have racing presidents. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie “Bull Durham,” the Durham Bulls have trotted out mascot characters from the movie – Crash, Annie and Nuke – to race.

“There’s definitely some bragging rights and one-upmanship,” Hill said. “The industry is interested in what others are doing.”

Weymier said he and his team in Hickory try to come up with themes or giveaways that are directed at families. He points to a recent Disney Night where fans were encouraged to dress like Disney characters. Disney movie clips and music were played on the video board and over the speakers throughout the stadium.

In Hickory, fan involvement is important to Weymier and his staff. The Crawdads plan an upcoming Willy Wonka Day where there will be five “golden tickets” hidden in hot dog wrappers. The people who find the golden tickets will win tickets for them and a guest to an upcoming game, a tour of the ballpark and the honor to throw out the first pitch.

“The fans enjoy and get into them,” Weymeir said. “We try to get them involved as much as we can.”

For the Mudcats, Nickelsen said the team tries to appeal to as many people as possible. The club will offer discounted concessions, and in tough economic conditions this has helped boost attendance for the Indians Single-A affiliate, Nickelsen said. Without these discounts, Minor League Baseball “would be in trouble,” he said.

“Records may not be the biggest factor in attendance like in Major League Baseball,” Nickelsen said. “The score could be the furthest thing from the minds of most of our fans. We want something that encourages people to come out and leave with an enjoyable experience. We want them to want to come back again.”

Rupard: 919-829-8954

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