Anyone out there?Marketing the Blue Jays and getting back the fans, Mark Keast discovers, is an on-going and varied endeavour
By MARK KEAST
Mike Veeck is on the phone from Charleston, S.C. You might know the name. People in pro baseball circles sure do. The zany, off-the-wall showman, spinning dour baseball traditionalists on their collective ear -- "the prince of baseball promotion" as Fortune magazine called him last year. Son of the late Bill Veeck, legendary baseball executive, also known for showman tendencies, such as the time in 1951 when he sent a midget to the plate for the St. Louis Browns, a team he owned. Much of that was born into Mike, now 53, the man responsible for the most infamous promotion in baseball history -- Disco Demolition Night at old Comiskey Park in
These days, Veeck is a partner in The Goldklang Group, owner of six minor-league baseball franchises, a $30-million business, leading a renaissance in minor pro baseball. There he brings the same irreverence to the marketing table -- Tonya Harding Bat Night, cross-dressing dog mascots, a free vasectomy night that set off a protest led by a Catholic bishop who also happened to be a season-ticket holder.
What does talking about the most famous baseball promoter have to do with Toronto's pro baseball team? A lot, actually. Marketing plays a role in determining relevance in a sports-heavy marketplace. Veeck knows marketing, particularly one form of marketing, one grounded in constant innovation and no fear of failing. And there are plenty of questions around the topic of relevance hanging over the heads of those who run the Blue Jays as an abysmal season heads into its final month.
Are the Jays being noticed by people in a city of Maple Leafs fans and bandwagon jumpers, with so many other entertainment options? Are they now officially an afterthought, and is a winning season enough to bring back the casual fan? Will any marketing strategy make a dent?
"Fan apathy is a dangerous thing," said Laurel Lindsay, the Jays' recently appointed director of consumer and cause-related marketing. "If you get to the point where they just don't care, that's a problem."
In 1994, just after the last of two World Series seasons, and with the bloom not yet knocked off the SkyDome's rose, the team averaged 50,573 in attendance. They were the "in" thing. Then the lockout hit and support has dropped away. Average home attendance this season was among the lowest in the major leagues through 70 home dates (22,046). Then came injuries to key players, or players not performing as expected, and the season was pushed off the rails as early as April. Tie a can to the manager, as they did with Carlos Tosca in August, and that's a wrap.
"It's the idea of how you become compelling," said Bob Stellick, president of Toronto-based Stellick Marketing Communications. "With the Jays, it's not a question of ticket prices. Ticket prices are economical. It's just that this city is a spotlight city and the spotlight has moved off of baseball right now. It's really difficult to get it back."
A successive group of people hasn't been able to find the answer, he said.
Those in the Jays organization will tell you they're well on their way to solving the issue, if it exists at all. Team attendance in 2004 will come in at a smidgeon above the 1.8 million recorded in 2003, and they say they're optimistic of hitting 2.1 or 2.2, or even perhaps 2.5 million in the years ahead, hopefully when the team turns it around on the field, pushing the franchise into profitability. Merchandise sales are up 75%.
Management also remains bullish about TV ratings even with the team's last-place, 56-80 record.
A losing record, disinterest in the team around the city and the Expos' impending exit from Montreal has people asking if that can happen here.
It all starts with the team's on-field performance. As general manager J.P. Ricciardi said: "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if we have a lot of bells and whistles. If we don't win a lot of games, people aren't going to come."
The re-invention of that product, according to team president Paul Godfrey -- founded on a strategy of building from within, planting seeds through a healthy minor league system while not bulking up through expensive free-agent acquisitions -- is now past its halfway point and fans will be seeing the fruits of those efforts over the next two years.
"No one said it was going to be a straight line," Godfrey said.
Getting control of the SkyDome and making necessary capital improvements such as new turf and a new scoreboard is another factor in making it hip to go the ball park again.
Then there is marketing, or "getting people into the tent." Veeck is all about servicing the fan, making it fun, focusing on family. It has worked for him in the minor leagues. Whether Veeck's style of marketing and promotion would work in Toronto is anybody's guess, but he would certainly make it more irreverent than it is now.
DEAL WITH PRESSURES
"I think it's very rare that (humour) doesn't work," he said. "I think the people to whom we market this game are smart. I think we all deal with the pressures of everyday life by being a little bit irreverent. I think you can convince people to see things your way if you soften them up with some humour."
Veeck remains a fan of Jim Bloom's work, the man behind the Jays' controversial Baseball North marketing strategy. Bloom resigned as director, consumer marketing in mid-August, replaced by Lindsay.
"I think (Bloom's resignation) is a blow to baseball, and certainly to Toronto," Veeck said. "He has a great sense of humour. He's not afraid to try things."
Veeck especially liked the ad last season that had a bird relieving itself on a New York Yankees cap, as well as a promotion that invited fans to boo outfielder Hideki Matsui, which raised the ire of some in the Yankees organization.
"Anytime you can get George (Steinbrenner, Yankees owner) screaming, you know you've done something worthwhile with your life," Veeck said.
Others in the marketing world liked the Baseball North tagline, but felt the message missed the mark. "You gotta see these guys play" fell short this season because of the team's standing.
Former Jays marketing director Peter Cosentino, who left the team prior to Bloom's arrival in 2002 to start his own company, says the TV commercials missed the essence of what Baseball North should be about.
"It should be about the 'I Am Canadian' of baseball," he said. "You had a new GM in J.P. Ricciardi, and he's bringing in new players, a new style, new philosophy. It's about work ethic, playing hard, playing smart, getting your uniform dirty."
Stellick touched on that also, how he was amazed that Toronto was a baseball town more than a hockey city during that height in popularity during the early 1990s, when he was working for the Maple Leafs. It wasn't just a winning team or the novelty of the SkyDome, he says, it was the ability of Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick, the Jays management team at the time, to endear themselves to the city through a humble, folksy, everyday-guy demeanour, while using sharp business acumen behind the scenes.
"Beeston used to tell me that was the whole secret," Stelllick said.
It's too early to determine what their marketing direction will be for 2005, but Rob Godfrey, Jays senior vice-president, communications and external relations, and Lindsay say they don't disagree with Cosentino's assessment, which is why you might see an emphasis on blue-collar, hard-working players such as Reed Johnson as the next marketing campaign takes shape.
It also means playing up Vernon Wells, the burgeoning superstar who could take the baton from Carlos Delgado as the face of the team if the latter leaves as a free agent.
If the Jays want to market their stars, then their centre fielder represents the future. Wells likes to talk about the other way the Jays can connect with Toronto -- through handshakes, autographs, tearing the down the wall that separates the fan from the athlete, that need for the player to make himself more accessible.
That was on display during an afternoon in late August at the SkyDome when Wells led 100 kids through the final day of Rookie League Baseball, a Toronto Community Housing and Blue Jays initiative aimed at teaching kids in Toronto's inner-city the importance of healthy living and commitment through baseball.
"I'm sure there are some (baseball players who are too unattached)," Wells said. "We all have to take the responsibility of knowing that people look up to us and we have to do the right thing. I love doing this. I think it's just as important as me showing up and playing on the field. Hopefully we can get baseball rocking again in this city. I think as we start winning, people will start paying more attention."
Rob Godfrey feels fan apathy bottomed out in 2002, but that Ricciardi's arrival and the Baseball North campaign brought people out of their indifference.
There might be a different tone than what Bloom presented, and what people such as Veeck favour, but Jays marketers say their next media buy will again hover in the $1-million range and will be more aggressive in reaching the demographics they want to reach.
They'll market more to women, in part by stressing affordability, because research says women hold more control over the purse-strings on the home front. They'll market more to young people, in part through more of a partnership with Baseball Ontario, as well as a new program geared at making baseball part of the educational curriculum in schools around the GTA.
Whether enough young people are listening is another question entirely. According to Randy Pickle, president of the Baseball Ontario, grassroots participation has declined since the heyday of the early 1990s, with lacrosse, basketball and soccer on the rise.
Then there's how you get the message to young people who don't necessarily play the game.
"A young Canadian, in that 12 to 24 age group, can sit with his friends and play Major League Baseball 2005 on their TVs or computers, in 20 minutes, and get the real action," said Kevin Goodman, director, account services at Youthography, a Toronto-based marketing firm that specializes in helping companies speak to younger people. "(Real) baseball games last over three hours. That's a long commitment for anyone, especially when you consider the attention span of a young person."
The Jays' program of getting kids to spend a night at the SkyDome with their parents or guardians worked, he says, because it emphasized a full-fledged baseball experience -- it gave the kids a lasting memory associated with baseball that they'll take away as they grow older. Still, Goodman marked the decline of interest among young people in what he calls the stick and ball sports, and that's what the Jays face when they talk about reaching out to young people.
"The increase in action, extreme, alternative sports is definitely on the rise," he said. "With alternative sports, it's really more than just a love or a passion for a sport, it's turned into a whole lifestyle for these young people, dictated by what they wear, what they're listening to, the group of friends they hang out with."
That also brings up the question of internet marketing, particularly topical when going after young people. Major League Baseball's website, and those like it, drive Veeck crazy.
"It looks like it was designed by a 53-year-old white guy," he said. "My kids look at it and say: 'You know dad, this could use a little work.' I'd go out and get a 19-year-old freak because they've obviously got a handle on it. The internet is where the kids are going."
The Jays also will open their arms more to baseball fans in the U.S. states near the Canadian border and on getting more casual fans to the park, not the hardcore fans, understanding that there are different segments within the population, and having a plan to go after them. That means more things like Hispanic Nights and Gay Nights.
Wherever they go from here, it will be an uphill haul.
"The game of baseball has slowed down while the world has sped up," Stellick said.
There's no magic formula to getting noticed in an increasingly bustling sports marketplace. Veeck just hopes they have fun with it.
"Look, we're not building bombs," he said. "There is a lot of serious stuff going on in the world right now. We're the balm, if you pardon the expression, for that. That's why people come. They want to escape that."
Number of rep ball teams in Ontario since the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993:
Blue Jays average attendance since 1990 (first full year in the SkyDome)