For most sports leagues, a winning team equates to stronger attendance, corporate sponsorship, better brand perception, and high overall revenue. Winning is the primary reason sports team play. It’s also a very good excuse to raise prices to leverage and monetize that window of success.
Minor league baseball is different.
Because clubs do not control their product on the field, factors like ballpark atmosphere, customer experience, community involvement, and ticket value are their prominent marketing tools. An expression we use in the business is that fans won’t remember who played and they won’t remember the score, but they will remember the food, between inning promotions, and giveaways.
While a winning MiLB team will endlessly promote their championship, there are costs and hurdles to overcome to make it financially successful. Let’s look at a few key factors that determine if winning is beneficial, because it isn’t as clear-cut of a positive in MiLB as it is for other sports.
The Pros of Winning
You’re the Winning team All Offseason
Flags fly forever, and to be able to promote a championship for an entire off-season is worth its weight in gold.
Sales staff can answer the phones ‘Thanks for calling the Championship winning so and so…’, the championship logo is used on all sales collateral, business cards, and photos across social media, and championship related promos and giveaways are planned for the following season.
Mascot appearances that include the trophy, and maybe some smaller replica trophies for kids at hospitals or schools are a great touch.
If the team has a good relationship with the media, the owners will go on TV and radio talking about the team’s march to the title. Upper management will go all over the community on speaking engagements talking about their leadership style and how to create a ‘winner’. As I mentioned above, management doesn’t control the players so they don’t actually have anything to do with the title, but that doesn’t stop the team from basking in the victory and earned media.
Some teams will tell you that they don’t work for a sports team, but a customer service company. While that is a true in some form, nobody ever left a movie theatre with a hoarse voice from cheering, or got a giveaway at their favorite mall store.
Sports teams create memories and are the original ‘content’ machines that agencies and other companies aspire to create. Fans want to cheer for a team that proudly wears their city name across their chest.
Attending a clinching victory amongst thousands of fellow fans creates unbelievable memories, ones they will tell their friends about and pass down a few generations. That includes the unfurling and raising of the championship banner at the home opener the following season.
At a higher level, don’t underestimate how important it is for owners to invite key municipal or state decision makers on the field to help celebrate and share in the civic accomplishment. The last time one of my teams won a title, we invited our three biggest sponsors into the dressing room for the champagne celebration. You wouldn’t have been able to create a memory like that in a million years, and needless to say their contract extension was inevitable.
Additional Revenue Opportunities
Obviously, making the playoffs means more home games. This includes more opportunities to sell more suites, tickets, merchandise with the championship logo, as well as food and beverage.
A sneaky little fact is that these extra games could help teams reach concession, parking and merchandise revenue thresholds, enabling them to get a larger cut of revenue from their third party vendor.
Getting a sponsor to present the playoffs not only yields additional revenue, but they Present the Playoffs. This is the logo fans see on the field and videoboard, as well as in all promos about the playoffs, which is engagement companies strive to achieve.
Wearing a championship ring enables a person to start a conversation with anybody, anywhere, at any time. I can tell you from personal experience that no matter the price, ownership usually has no problem splurging on rings for all members of the staff and team.
The reverence from family and friends is addictive, to be honest, and it becomes a great marketing piece for your franchise and partners.
The Cons of Winning
Because MiLB teams generally advertise their giveaways and promotions, promoting a winning team could take time for fans to realize and activate. Fans will buy tickets in advance for fireworks or bobbleheads, but they may not look towards their MiLB team for winning. It might take a few days or weeks for it to sink to the public that their team is playing important games on the field.
This is inconvenient when the team clinches a few days before their first playoff game. I have plenty of experience in this regard: three times my team clinched the playoffs less than 48 hours before the first home game. While that was before social media, they clinched over Labor Day, so it was difficult to get the word out because newspapers were closed, radio stations had their host fill-ins, and people were away at the cottage or lake.
Needless to say, we didn’t sell many tickets for the actual playoff games.
You’re probably wondering something along the lines of, “shouldn’t you have pre-sold tickets a few weeks before?”
The answer is yes, in theory, and major league teams do that well. However, because fans aren’t always following the minor league standings as intently and because winning isn’t the primary reason that fans come to the ballpark, advance tickets don’t sell that well unless the particular team is used to winning.
That’s a stark contrast from the major league teams that make fans renew the following season’s suites and season tickets while buying their playoff tickets.
Also, with the playoffs being in mid-September, the kids are back in school, the temperature in some states begins to drop, and families might be reluctant to leave the house on school nights. That works against minor league teams on the staffing side too. In one playoff game held in the afternoon, the kids and teachers that would have otherwise worked part time at concessions were back in school, so instead we had our full time staff running the whole park.
Teams have to hire parking attendants, ushers, ticket takers, concession workers, stadium cleaners, and everybody in between in order to operate their ballpark. If, like mentioned above, tickets don’t sell that well, those costs might be much higher than the revenue, especially if the team doesn’t have all their ducks in a row.
In addition, the team has to figure out housing for players, which has additional costs. If the team uses housing families, those houses probably have students living in them once school starts, so their players might not have a bed or a room during the playoffs. While most families are nice and won’t kick the player out of the house outright, that student is probably paying ten times (not a typo) the player is per month. Housing families are nice, but they’re not THAT nice.
Instead, the players that are left without housing end up staying in hotels, which the team has to coordinate and pay out of pocket. 35 players and coaches’ rooms adds up quickly, even if it’s just for a few nights.
Ticket Revenue Sharing
Each league mandates that playoff teams share their revenue with opposing teams so nobody loses money. I have been in league meetings and looked over financials, and teams greatly overvalue their costs and undervalue their ticket revenue. This isn’t a knock on specific teams, but it happens.
When teams don’t have many tickets sold before their games, they will get creative with ticket deals to get fans into the ballpark and sell merch, food, and parking. Discounting playoff tickets seems totally counterintuitive, but it’s the reality that some teams face.
This might damage the teams’ credibility amongst season ticket holders and consistent ticket buyers, but also their relationship with more established and successful teams in their league, as the stronger teams have to share their revenue.
Winning a championship is one of the best professional moments I’ve had, but after the champagne dries and everybody gets up from the dog pile, some teams face a sobering financial reality. Smart teams may not get hit as hard by these late season issues, but few teams come out of the playoffs financially unscathed.
Lead Photo: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports