ON N.J. SPORTS MARKETING
The state of New Jersey is certainly not at a loss for quality minor league baseball entertainment. Affiliated teams like the Lakewood Blue Claws and the Trenton Thunder as well as the independent Atlantic League’s Camden Riversharks and Somerset Patriots are constantly on the top of the list for not just being innovative but for running smart and effective businesses with respected brands. In that group at one point was also the Newark Bears, but the franchise, now in the Can-Am League, has again fallen on hard times. Talk of putting a stadium and a team in Bergen County, tied to the ill-fated Xanadu project, came and went, so Bergen, one of the State’s most prosperous and sports-conscious counties, was left without a team. Families looking for the fun of the minors have been dispatched to Montclair, where the Indy New Jersey Jackals play, or up the New York Thruway to see the affiliated and always fun Hudson Valley Renegades. Both were a bit of a hike but worthwhile trips for those looking for an affordable minor league fix.
Late last spring however, another local opportunity came on the horizon in the form of the Rockland Boulders, less than 20 minutes from the Jersey state line, at a gleaming new Provident Bank Ballpark in Pomona, New York. That was the good news. The bad part from a brand standpoint was that the team and the stadium project did not get off to a great start in getting the word out. Staff hires were late as construction went beyond the final opening dates; controversy soared around the finances of the stadium and the burden of taxes being out on the local community. Fans were skeptical. The team would also have to start its season on the road before jamming in its Can-Am League schedule from late June until September making the marketing of the team tough to do well in advance. Regardless, the stadium opened, the full Can-Am schedule was played out, staff was hired and the Boulders got to their core business: providing affordable family fun in New York’s smallest county. Ownership and front office staff should have gotten an award for perseverance in what was a rocky but ever-improving start for the team.
Now fast-forward to 2012 and the Boulders brand seems to really be rolling. With a full off-season to market and develop community and business programs, management, led by president Ken Lehner, has started to put the independent team in a position of strength, whereas last year the team was always playing catch-up. On the media side, radio broadcasts on WRCR are now being carried across the river into Westchester on WFAS radio, an important marketing outlet for the team to draw from central Westchester for the first time. Ballpark signage has increased and is sold out leaving the team in the enviable position of trying to find more innovative space for brand partners. Partnerships with entities like the popular Rockland Bakery and the Palisades Center Mall have given the team more community presence, new contests and promotions, and a better pace of schedule has given the team a runway for success they did not have last year.
The team has also organized and planned out a strong outreach not just into Westchester but into Bergen and Passaic county as well via a partnership with The Record newspaper and News 12 and a series of promotions which will include the innovative idea of renaming the team the Bergen Boulders for a game on July 22. That open acknowledgment and inclusion into North Jersey will go far in engaging casual fans eager to embrace a team so close to home, one which didn’t even exist 18 months ago. The corporate base in the area close to Rockland is also prime for ticket sales and sponsorship and the team will be adding some staff to focus on that market as well, making the Boulders Bergen’s team as well as Rockland’s.
Now this is not to say that all is still smooth sailing for the team and the stadium. The rocky Can-Am League, with a handful of franchises, is not of the quality of the Indy Atlantic League or a team affiliated with a Major League organization, but the Boulders have increased their spend on their level of talent to be ultra-competitive (a partnership with the independent American Association, which plays in the Midwest, has also bolstered the level of play). The Stadium is still mired in controversy over its debt and the tax burden on local residents but the Boulders have gone out of their way to embrace residents and show the value that they bring to the community and surrounding businesses. There is also strong competition in a challenged economy for casual spending, but Rockland, as an affordable alternative for family entertainment, is carving a niche for families and is seeing great results with attendance rising from a wider area and more repeat customers bringing back friends after a positive first-hand experience. More camp days, more promotions and more Little League groups have also ramped up the level of engagement with fans on the grassroots level, all of which will further cement the Boulders business in the community over time.
Make no mistake that the business of minor league baseball, especially without the deeper pockets and ties to the major leagues, is still a rocky one. However, from year one to year two, the Boulders seem to have everything rolling in the right direction for both fan satisfaction and business excess, building one step at a time with an effort more than worthy of support in the marketplace.
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.