Improving Independent Baseball + Game Delayed In Worcester Due To Vendor Demanding Payment

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The start of a Worcester Tornadoes home game was delayed this week due to a creditor demanding payment for unpaid services.  The company’s representatives came with a court order that it could claim team equipment.  According to one of the articles, Tornadoes’ general manager, Jorg Bassiacos, said: “We had a difference of opinion over a verbal agreement with a vendor over a service agreement. It’s a vendor we no longer use.”


According to the articles, the game started late after a promise to remedy the situation came from the Can-Am League office.

Here are the articles of interest:

With an official court order then there must have been some merit to the vendor’s claim, although IndependentBaseball.net does not have specifics on the financial situation between the team and the vendor.  What this does, of course, is hurt the independent baseball industry when misunderstandings which could be remedied in private get played out with court orders and reaches a national audience (Yahoo! The Post Game).

Instead of just sitting around and complaining or “finger pointing”, here are quick, actionable suggestions for the team for the rest of the 2012 regular season, off-season, and next season assuming the team is returning.  These suggestions also apply to all professional independent baseball teams which are having financial challenges, regardless of their leagues or how other teams in their leagues are doing financially.  These suggestions may fly in the face of convention, but they deal with the reality of tired front office staff and interns, players who want to “wrap up” the season, and general internal frustration when a season is not going as planned:

MINDSET CHANGES

This is the biggest challenge for owners and GM’s.  From their first days as professional baseball executives, they are indoctrinated that they “Don’t sell baseball.  They are in the affordable, local, family-friendly entertainment business of selling tickets, concessions, beer, sponsorships, and merchandise.”  That model works only in certain markets, and only with an intelligent and dedicated staff AND with a little bit of luck.  If it truly worked every time, then the failure rate of independent baseball teams would not be as high (over 75%) over the 20 seasons of independent baseball since 1993.

The “affordable, local, family-friendly entertainment” business model was nice in the 1970’s and 1980’s; but the current economic situation forces teams to offer MORE than just that.  Teams have high burdens such as high stadium lease rates from cities (who need money), workers’ compensation insurance, rising prices for balls and bats, and rising travel costs — not to mention player salaries and moderately-high manager/coaches salaries.  Independent baseball was novel in the mid-90’s because it had some success in certain markets (not all) and did a few things differently, including the pig delivering baseballs to the umpire and a few unique aspects for in-game entertainment.  Unfortunately, with independent baseball becoming more “mature” (20th season), it is time for the industry to take the next step and take advantage of its “independence” from the MiLB parent model.

Teams must remember that apart from economic challenges, fans (especially families with young kids) have many more entertainment options than they did in the 1980’s.  Netflix, readily-available movie ticket coupons, every MLB game on TV each night, laser-light bowling, social media chatting, and lots of other options exist for families and other local residents to entertain themselves from 7:00 to 10:00pm during the summertime.  Many of these alternatives are more cost-effective than going to a local pro baseball game.  These challenges did not exist during the 1980’s, including the decline of trust in the local newspaper and radio stations; and this decline in trust is seen in the 21-30 age market, many of whom now have kids which fall into the target market for independent (and MiLB) baseball teams.

MiLB (affiliated) teams have certain benefits, despite the higher barrier to entry for ownership with the current team valuations.  They have the player and managerial salaries paid by the parent club.  Obviously, many of those teams run in better-sized markets many of which are cities which currently host NFL teams or NBA teams (e.g. Buffalo, Charlotte, New Orleans). Of nearly the same importance, the teams and the media covering MLB mention these teams frequently.  You will hear mention on baseball TV shows of a player being called up or sent down to “Team X”.  Major baseball publications also give lots of coverage to the teams and their players.  All of this increases awareness AND “social proof” (endorsement) that the MiLB teams are worthy of a fan’s attention to at least some degree.

Unfortunately, independent baseball teams do not get much if any endorsement or “authority” from media outlets which the casual fans respect.  Yahoo!, ESPN, CNN SI, and other respected sports media outlets do not cover regularly the independent teams; and they usually mention independent baseball teams only when there is a wacky promotion or situations like the one this week in Worcester.  It is up to the teams to make their franchises worth something attending to people outside of their local markets when the local fans are not showing up as they may have a few years ago.

The problem is, with so many high fixed costs AND the “we are only local entertainment” belief system, the teams have little money or inclination to hire (or give incentive) for quality talent to make their teams marketable nationally.  Take a look at the independent leagues in the past few years and you won’t see much unique other than new stadiums (as beautiful as many of them are) and some post-game concerts.  There is no “Wow Factor” which makes someone from over 1000 miles away decide to check out a game when he/she is traveling for work or vacation.  The players are anonymous to the average fan, and the promotions are not anything where a first-time attendee consistently would brag to his/her friends that he/she is going to something amazing that night.  This is not a knock on the quality of players or the hard-working efforts of the front office staffs.  It is just the perception by most casual baseball fans across North America who have barely heard anything about independent baseball leagues.

To sum up, the teams need to look at themselves as being MORE than just local entertainment.  As soon as they kill that limiting belief then they will begin to see opportunities to raise revenues instead of just cutting player salaries or not paying vendors in order to “just make it through the season.”  The latter is not an assault on Worcester, but more of a general statement about many independent baseball teams which played throughout the 20 seasons.

SPECIFIC ACTIONS

A quick look at the Worcester Tornadoes Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/worcestertornadoes) shows that they have just over 2100 Likes at the time of this post.  The team’s Twitter account has just over 1500 followers (https://twitter.com/worctornadoes).  This means that with the push of a button they can reach 3600+ people.  At the time of this post the announced attendance for the team is over 54,000 this season (http://www.pointstreak.com/baseball/attendance.html?leagueid=201&seasonid=11459).   Assuming that the announced attendance is nearly 100% of “in-stadium attendance”, this ratio is not good, especially if you factor in 2010 and 2011 attendance when people were using Facebook and Twitter regularly.

The team should focus on sending interns around town to boost the size of their lists.  Interns and staff should focus on getting people to join the team’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, e-mail newsletter, and any other properties which the team controls.  The numbers at this point should be a combined (all lists) minimum of 30% of this year’s attendance.  This means that there should be at least 15,000 people (locally AND nationally) who are on the team’s lists.  This should be the focal point of the off-season in addition to booking ticket sales and sponsorships + basic operations.

From there, the question is how to monetize those lists other than just selling merchandise and ticket discounts through those channels.  Here is a quick list, and many more ways can be implemented:

  • The Tornadoes have not yet taken advantage of a free daily trivia question on the history of independent baseball:  http://www.independentbaseballtrivia.com/worcestertornadoes.   The Can-Am League office already has taken advantage of their page (seen on the league website’s sidebar); and the team can run Google per-click revenue ads or any other sort of advertising on that page.  Then the team has a reason to post something every day, including the off-season, which can make them money nationally — not just in the local region
  • The team could post MLB or other sports trivia every day on its website and do the same thing as above
  • The team could post famous athletes’ birthdays with affiliate links to Amazon or eBay to purchase memorabilia and merchandise of these athletes and/or their teams
  • Baseball training tips could be given away weekly, with either paid product placement or at least affiliate links to where fans could get discounts (or free shipping) on baseball equipment
  • Players now can have print-on-demand merchandise made which does not cost the team a penny.  Players could post THEIR links on their own Facebook/Twitter/e-mail channels and help the team raise revenues
  • Players in independent baseball do not get any endorsement from manufacturers even though they wear the equipment in actual pro baseball games.  Action shots of the players can be posted with affiliate links to help fans buy the equipment which the players actually wear and use.  It is a “workaround” way to help players and teams make more money from the manufacturers.  Since the teams are “independent” of the Players Agreement then they can take advantage of this opportunity
  • Come up with actual unique, funny, memorable, “Wow factor” social media promotions.  Any good book on social media can give ideas to teams on how to adapt what they read to give fans a reason to spread the word about the team nationally.  With no national media attention given to the teams then the teams can use inexpensive press release distribution services, with some catchy headlines, to boost attention for these social media promotions.  Oh… and if done right, it just may add some “butts in seats” next season as well!

These are just a few ideas which most team GM’s who “don’t understand that internet stuff” (actual quote from a GM in a private conversation earlier this season with IndependentBaseball.net) can get someone to implement.  They are relatively easy to do, usually free or dirt-cheap, and actually give the team content to keep their current fans loyal plus attract new ones.

As we know, there are many MLB team fans who have NEVER ATTENDED any MLB game, let alone a game of their favorite team.  Why are they still fans of the team then?  The answers include good marketing, discovering the right emotional incentive (“hook”) to retain that fan, and consistently good content in a number of different channels.  With access to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, LinkedIn, and dozens of other NATIONALLY-REACHING channels available to independent baseball teams it is time for them to hire staff and talent which can make independent baseball unique, funny, compelling and entertaining to fans outside of their respective local markets.

Yes many independent baseball teams are doing well at the gate and, by inference, likely are profitable entities.  These include St. Paul, Long Island, Winnipeg, Sugar Land, Lincoln, Traverse City, and a few others.  Does what is suggested apply to these teams as well?  Yes it does, perhaps even moreso.  The reason is that fans like to be associated with winners and successful attendance teams.  The time is now for these teams to really kick it into high gear and make their teams and leagues attractive to new fans and new investors, the latter who will see a better business model than previously.

For example, if St. Paul’s Facebook page (currently 7400+ Likes and 11,000+ “check ins”) and Twitter page (5600+ followers) + its e-mail list can be tripled, by a combination of local and national fans, then the revenue potential for the team increases dramatically.  Whether the team offers a daily trivia question with ads on the page, a weekly “how to” video, monthly unique & fun (remember “Fun Is Good“) social media promotions to attract national interest during the off-season then several things can happen:

  • direct revenue from the clicked ads, product placement fees in the how-to videos, etc.
  • increased merchandise sales from fans across the country even if these people never attend a game or buy a hot dog
  • increased attendance at off-season events
  • increased attendance at events held at the stadium when the team is on the road
  • more mainstream sports media attention
  • possible new avenues to gain sponsors by creating high-demand “inventory” out of thin air which has tangible value

IndependentBaseball.net is always on the side of helping both teams and players have opportunities to enjoy long careers in pro baseball based on ethical principles.  Taking advantage of its “independence” is a way to do things which are unique, give actual “value” to baseball fans across the country, provide revenue to teams (and hopefully some which goes to players!), and enhance the ability to attract top-level talent to the fields and the front offices of pro independent baseball teams.

Feel free to leave your thoughts on this subject if you wish.  Please keep the comments to ways in which independent teams can increase their revenues.  Yes, some teams deserve to fold or move to better markets based on their actions (or non-actions).  Instead of finger pointing at a specific team’s events (e.g. the Worcester situation listed earlier), please leave comments which can be worthy of sending to a team’s ownership and front office to boost their business models.  Thank you for supporting pro independent baseball and helping the teams, including the already successful ones, get to the next level in their business models and how they can give unique & fun ways to entertain you even if you do not live in the local markets of independent baseball teams.

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