It's Not Whether You Win or Lose. It's How You Sell the Game
From behind home plate, Jason Klein and Casey White look proudly at the Reading Phillies' flamethrower Phillippe Aumont. It's not his high-priced arm they're admiring, it's what he's wearing. "They're the only team with pink on their uniforms," White says.
Klein and White, who are each 30 years old, are the owners of Plan B. Branding, an upstart consulting company that has helped more than 30 minor league teams, including the Double-A Reading Phillies, rebrand themselves, creating new uniforms, logos, and in some cases even names. It's a thriving business, largely because minor league teams, unlike some in the majors, haven't suffered much in the recession. Attending a Reading Phillies game costs about as much as seeing a movie. "I won't say we're recession-proof, but we're recession-resistant," says Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Conner.
Merchandise sales account for about $50 million of MiLB's $750 million in annual revenue, but the true value is higher. "The merchandise drives awareness, which translates into ticket sales," says Ken Schnacke, president of the Columbus Clippers and chair of MiLB's licensing committee. On average, 13 of MiLB's 160 teams rebrand themselves each year. Often it happens because a team moves, gets a new stadium or a new owner, or becomes affiliated with a different major league team. It also happens because a new look drives sales. "It's like if LeBron James changes his number," O'Conner says. "Everyone wants to buy the new jersey."
Perhaps the main reason you see more cosmetic changes in the minors is because the owners and their staff are, in essence, theatrical producers—and costumes are a big part of the show. "We don't control a single thing that happens on the field, not the players that are sent to us or the coaches," says Reading Phillies General Manager Scott Hunsicker. "What we control is what happens off the field and making it a great experience for the fans."
That's where Plan B comes in. The two owners, best friends since kindergarten, got off to an inauspicious start in baseball. They were fired from summer jobs with their hometown San Diego Padres after pulling a stunt in the stands involving a piñata of an opposing player stuffed with fake money. In 2002, while White attended New York's Pratt School of Art & Design and Klein the University of Alabama, aided by a mascot scholarship, they sent letters to every minor league team offering their design services. Only the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx wrote back. For the Jaxx, now a Seattle Mariners Double-A affiliate, Klein and White designed the team's new logo, "Jim Dandy," a Disneyfied version of a miner wielding a baseball bat modified into a pickax. Merchandise sales spiked, word spread, and other clubs came calling.
Two years later they completely reinvented the Clearwater Phillies. Like many minor-league teams, particularly those in the lower rungs, the Phillies were named after their parent club, which had nothing in the way of local identification. To come up with something that had greater resonance, White and Klein spent time on the Florida docks, where fishermen recounted their harrowing brushes with vicious sharks that use their tails to attack. They were called threshers, and soon enough, so was the team. With a logo cooked up by Plan B, the Clearwater Threshers sold eight times more gear in 2004 than in 2003.
By comparison, the rebranding of the Reading Phillies was a more modest affair. Team owners considered their association with Philadelphia to be an important asset, so the range of possibilities was more circumscribed. "We created a candy version of the Philadelphia Phillies uniform," Klein says. In place of the Liberty Bell, which the Philadelphia team uses on its patches, Plan B substituted a pagoda, alluding to a quirky Reading landmark.
Klein and White take pride in the time they spend with an organization and the research they do into local history before embarking on design work. "It's typically about a four-month process," Klein says. The fees start at $10,000 for a team and run as high as $80,000. After their research, they return to the studio and make dozens of pencil sketches of logos and get feedback from the team. "Next we work on colors," Klein says. "If it's a brick-heavy city, maybe we look at reds." Or if the team is on the coast, they're aware that "Pacific Ocean blues are different than Gulf Coast blues." Finally, they turn to uniforms. "We've developed a special in-house program that spits out every cap, jersey, and pant option known to man," Klein says.
When possible, Plan B injects an element of zaniness into minor league teams. They're not paid to play it safe. Tasked with finding a name for a new team in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, they proposed the IronPigs, a nod to the region's history of steel production. (Pig iron is the industry name for the raw iron ore that's melted down to make steel; it's melted into molds that resemble a row of piglets). The mascot's name is Ferrous, which refers to the chemical name for iron. In 2008, IronPigs merchandise was the league's best seller.
"Sometimes you get these crazy names, and you say there's no way it's going to work, but then they turn out to be real popular," says MiLB President O'Conner. Some compromise is necessary. Two years ago in Bowling Green, Ky., the Tampa Bay Rays Singe-A affiliate brought Plan B in to help overhaul their apparel but also held a name-the-team contest. Plan B threw its support behind the suggestion Cave Shrimp, a local creature that is blind, translucent, and does, in fact, live in caves. The name made the final list of seven, though fans ultimately chose Hot Rods.
Sometimes an imaginative concept draws an initial negative response then sinks in over time, as happened with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Klein credits the team owner for effectively selling the concept by appearing at the official unveiling of the logo dressed in a squirrel superhero costume and taking questions mainly from members of a fourth-grade class who were in attendance.
Despite Plan B's success, minor league teams generally don't turn to outside talent for their logos. "Consultants are a bad word in our industry," says Hunsicker, who is wearing shorts and a funky collared shirt on game night. "But Jason and Casey don't come off like consultants. They do this Jedi mind trick where you think their ideas are your own. And they spend time with everyone, empowering the lowest guys on our staff. That alone is something worth paying for."
Successful minor league teams pull out all the stops in entertaining their fans. Beyond the right field fence at Reading's FirstEnergy Stadium, in lieu of bleachers, is a swimming pool where kids splash about under their parents' watchful eyes. On this night, a carrot mascot beat out other vegetables in a dash to a finish line near third base. And the postgame fireworks received a bigger ovation than a three-run homer in the ninth inning by Reading's top prospect.
One of Plan B's core concepts is "Shout your story"—so why have one mascot when you can have a whole rock band made of mascots (as the Reading Phillies do)? Plan B also promotes different aspects of the "ballpark experience." For Reading, they helped develop the label "Deck Heads" for the rambunctious, beer-swilling fans who populate the left field stands, and the team sells a shirt targeted to them. They also suggested that the team adopt the hipper team moniker current in the local vernacular, the R-Phils, another name that can be sold.
"Fifteen years ago, a minor league team had a home jersey and road jersey," says Chuck Domino, the former president of the Reading Phillies, who now runs the Richmond Flying Squirrels and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. "Now, teams also have Sunday uniforms and batting practice uniforms, and they're all for sale."
As Plan B grows, Klein and White have begun working with teams outside the minors. They tweaked Mr. Redlegs, the brand character who appears on the sleeve emblem of the Cincinnati Reds and have consulted for several WNBA and Arena Football League teams as well as the clothier for USA Gymnastics. They also run a website called the Clink Room, where amateur designers dream up their own teams and logos and compete to get them made into caps and T-shirts.
While they say they would welcome a call from the Steinbrenner family, Plan B's owners insist they'll always feel more at home in the minor leagues. "In the minors, you can come up with an idea, and the team can run with it in 48 hours," White says. "That's not how it works with the Cincinnati Reds."
After the game, Klein and White join Hunsicker and other Reading Phillies' employees for beers in the RBI Room, a no-frills private hangout in the bowels of the stadium. No players drop by, nor is there much talk about the actual sport of baseball. There is, however, much drinking, and Klein and White only leave at 5 in the morning so they won't miss their flight back West. There are lots of sayings in the minors, and Klein shares another one, an oblique reference to the hard-living world they've come to love: "If you're gonna hoot with the owls, you better be able to soar with the eagles."