ON N.J. SPORTS MARKETING
Minor league baseball is a fun, exciting and challenging business. Even at the most well funded, well-run level (Trenton and Lakewood in New Jersey fall into that category) a few missteps, an unhappy customer, or even bad weather can turn a profit margin into a loss and mean long, sleepless nights for those in charge. Those challenges are accentuated at the Independent League level, where clubs do not have the financial support and awareness level of Major League parent clubs, and all the dollars have to come from within.
That ying and yang of success and failure has been played out once again in Newark, where a summer of promise and hope has again turned on the hometown Bears, a star-crossed franchise which again appears on the verge of the rock pile amidst ownership backbiting, organizational chaos and a lack of dollars coming in the door in a very competitive marketplace.
However into the mix this summer came yet another Indy franchise, also in the Can-Am league, looking to draw dollars and attention from those who straddle the border between Rockland and Bergen Counties. The team is The Boulders, and their rush into existence less than ten minutes from the New Jersey border has been a roller coaster, but one with a strong upside if ownership can wait out the issues a first year minor league franchise goes through.
A recent trip to Provident Bank Ballpark saw a stadium in a picturesque setting, flush with lots of little nuances from a video screen to a field side bar in the outfield, and thousands of great seats at very affordable prices. The level of play in the Can-Am League is not entry level of the low minor leagues, and the games are both fun and entertaining. The food is plentiful and affordable, and the staff is helpful. Also, unlike many of their minor league counterparts throughout the region, the Boulders have the benefit of live over the air radio (WRCR 1300 AM), a wholly professional broadcast with Seth Cantor calling the action. They have also taken the steps to spend quality dollars in advertising for year one, grabbing the upper right hand of The Record in Bergen County to advertise home games, all of which over the long run could help The Boulders succeed in a corner of the marketplace which does not have similar attractions. There is no minor league outlet in Bergen or Rockland Counties—two of the most populous and sports savvy counties in the tri-state area. They also have had solid sponsor support, and obviously work hard to showcase their brand partners throughout the game and the season.
All that good news doesn’t mean the road for the Boulders has been a smooth one. The Stadium has faced, and continues to face, strong opposition from local non-elected community leaders who feel that the facility was railroaded into existence through back office politics, and is not in the best interests of all in the community. The area around the stadium is a mix of residential and commercial, and has few ancillary facilities (stores, restaurants etc.) that could also thrive as local businesses with a stadium in the area. The roads in and out are local and could present traffic headaches on very busy game days, although that would be a blessing to ownership (meaning that big crowds would be filling the stands). Then there is also the offseason issue of what the stadium will hold for the community. The facility is still a work in progress, having opened in June, and the press box is not behind home plate, the traditional spot for a baseball stadium. It is down the line in left field, which would improve sight lines should high school football, soccer, lacrosse or other events would come available when the Boulders season ends. There is also the issue of playing in the Can-Am League itself, perhaps the smallest of all independent leagues with a history of franchises coming in and out of existence, despite having one of its most successful franchises in New Jersey (The Jackals in Montclair). That uncertainty could hurt the Boulders in some ways (sponsors worried about damage to brand or lack of ling term commitment) or could help (showcasing the facility and the operation for an affiliated tie or a move to another Indy League like the more highly regarded and more stable Atlantic League).
As far as the facility and the event itself, the Boulders are obviously a work in progress. A big part of the lifeblood in the minors is game day sales on every level, and a trip to pick up souvenirs found an empty store with barren shelves and no way to order, even online, a kids cap or tee-shirt, which is money left on the table for the team. Minor leagues are also big on the fan friendly experience, yet on a Friday night not one player, coach or team official was out early signing autographs for the fans—no batting practice, no interaction at all. There is also a lack of connectivity to the local community—it is hard to find anything about the team and its players or its relationship with Rockland—no trivia about players, no stories etc. There is no chance of an emotional or personal connection to the team, and those little connections can make the difference in a second trip to the park this summer. Also for the digital world we live in, there are few drivers to the teams website or their social media platforms. Facebook connections on Friday, where fans can go to get a deal or two on future games, are a great idea, but there is no mention of the team website posted anywhere in the stadium, which again serves for a disconnect to a casual fan. Out of sight, out of mind. The stadium, as mentioned, is a work in progress but is really well done. Great seats, great sound system, state of the art video board, lots of room to roam and grow.
In all fairness, the team and their ownership group got off to a very late start this year, and the small margins for financial success do make it tough to do all the things one could probably do. However minor league baseball’s success is driven totally on the fan experience, and those little things—autographs, ample merch, website outreach—are not costly in dollars but can be very costly in fan and brand affinity for years to come.
It is all left to an experience which is nice but still not on par with other teams in the area. The Boulders have a great chance for success with a state of the art facility, owners invested in the community and a fan base that is hungry for the type of entertainment they can offer. It will be interesting to see how the bugs continue to be worked out with the ballpark and the experience, and of the Boulder brand can rise steadily in the eyes of casual sports fans looking for a quality night out.
Joe Favorito has over 24 years of strategic communications/marketing, business development and public relations expertise in sports, entertainment, brand building, media training, television, athletic administration and business. Visit him at JoeFavorito.com.