Sunday, February 23, 2014

Selling the Farm [Teams]

In my fanaticism for the greatest sport in the world, I like to debate strange topics with myself.  These arguments are often a result of the Baseball Book Club I’m a part of.  But usually it’s just things I think of.  Team names, team uniforms, rivalries, schedules.  All of these things come together in one of my all-time greatest searches: which Minor League is the best?
                By Minor Leagues, I mean leagues affiliated with Major League teams.  But I also have a lot of other arbitrary rules for what constitutes a good league.  You like the League to have a certain amount of its own tradition, but also not take itself too seriously.   This can be reflected in the team names, how far away the teams are from each other, and even just what cities the teams are in.  One of the prime candidates for the title of Best League has got to be the Midwestern League.  It has a FANtastic combination of the perfect places for baseball teams, relationships these teams can foster with their big league clubs, and identities they can forge with their own fan bases.
                A perfect example of this can be found in the Cedar Rapids Kernels.  The Minnesota Twins’ low-A farm club down in Iowa, which a couple buddies of mine and I went down for a road trip to see, are in my opinion doing everything right in the aforementioned categories.  The name Kernels identifies well with the area’s farming industry, but is goofy enough for the kids to enjoy.  The logo itself is a baseball bat dressed in a corn husk, wearing a baseball cap- it’s everything you want a minor league logo to be.  But besides that, they’ve just made all the right marketing decisions.  Their field is beautiful, and as developed as any I’ve seen at that level.  And when they realized what they had in new prospect Byron Buxton and went above and beyond their normal plan by actually making sherseys with his name, they also made the right call.
                But all this seems very typical of the franchises in that league.  There are sixteen of them, so they all have to distinguish themselves in their own ways.  Alliteration in a name is a good place to start because it’s fun to say.  The Dayton Dragons and Lansing Lugnuts both fit this description quite well.  And most of these teams are located in reasonably-sized metro areas.  They don’t have the warmest weather, but they’re able to support a baseball team that size, especially if that team has an exciting attraction or an identity the area can be proud of.[i]  Connections to the major leagues probably help, too.  The Wisconsin TimberRattlers are a couple hours from their big league club, the Milwaukee Brewers; same goes for the Peoria Chiefs and theirs, the St. Louis Cardinals; nor are the Western Michigan Whitecaps much further from the Detroit Tigers.  So a lot of these fans have easy access to the teams their favorite players will soon end up on.
                The Carolina League, on the other hand, is in my opinion a very poorly thought-out league, which could learn a few lessons from the Midwestern League.  It’s a class A Advanced league, but it contains only eight teams, without many nearby connections to the big league clubs, relatively speaking.  Only two teams play less than two states away from their big league affiliates, and several are much further than that. But besides that, the names are not so much uninspired, but rather miscalculated.  I think there’s a rule somewhere that you can’t name a team after the league they play in, and yet the Carolina Mudcats are trying to do that.[ii]  I wouldn’t call a team playing in the American League, America!  Other questionable teams’ names include the Potomac Nationals, named not after a city, county or state but a river.  I wonder how many of their fans live on or in said river.  And finally, I originally thought the Wilmington Blue Rocks were out of North Carolina, as there is a major city of the same name located there, a place the league names itself after.  But nay!-they represent the city in Delaware.  If you’re keeping score at home, that makes three out of the eight teams representing one of the two titular states.  Classic Carolina League!  Also, these eight teams are spread over five states ranging from Myrtle Beach in the Deep South, to Wilmington, well into the Mid-Atlantic region.
                The bigger reason the Carolina League has to be a poor idea for the type of sport it’s trying to promote has to do with what they’re competing against.  While I haven’t compared the types of attendance they have to the other events to which I’m about to refer, it stands to reason, given the scale of these respective events.  There is a limit to the amount of sports an area can handle, and I surmise that the Carolina League is topping the area out of it.  Auto racing is a much bigger deal in this area than it is elsewhere.  And despite the small concentration of teams in this particular area, nowhere in America is ever going to escape the influence of the NFL.  This is all without mentioning what the area might be the most well known for:  college basketball.[iii]  North Carolina has enough die-hard fans for the rest of the area, but the ACC has a strong grip now on the whole eastern seaboard.  The North Carolina-Duke rivalry is one of the country’s best in any sport, and Georgetown, not even an ACC member, is one of the most storied programs in the region.  Therefore, my fixes: rename the Carolina team Raleigh, rename the Potomac team to one of the cities or counties around there, and rename the league The Piedmont League.

[i] Just one of these teams, the Great Lakes Loons, sins in a way to which I will refer later, not picking a city, county or state in their name.
[ii] And they play in Five County Stadium.  Way to assert a specific identity…
[iii] My apologies to NASCAR and college football, both with valid complaints.

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