April 11, 2016

Building a Fan Base: Yard Goats sell baseball 'experience' to lure fans

PHOTO | Keith Griffin
PHOTO | Keith Griffin
Yard Goats General Manager Tim Restall said the team's most effective marketing tool will be word of mouth.

It hasn't been easy to market the Hartford Yard Goats.

The team's $63 million stadium — Dunkin' Donuts Park — is opening two months late in its inaugural season due to problems with cost overruns and project delays. There are suburbanites leery of issues like downtown traffic and parking. Attracting corporate dollars in a tentative Connecticut economy is a challenge, as is selling season tickets to what has only been a virtual stadium experience for fans.

All of that is happening amid the political melodrama over the team's very existence in the Capital City.

Since shutting down shop as the New Britain Rock Cats late last summer, Yard Goats General Manager Tim Restall and the Double-A baseball team's staff have spent the winter and early spring largely engaged in selling the team to anyone who will listen.

It's been a constant buzz of behind-the-scenes marketing.

Some Crisis Marketing

Once it was announced in January that the team was losing 40 percent of its home games due to construction delays, the Yard Goats engaged in crisis marketing, trying to assuage concerns of ticket holders and corporate sponsors who may have questioned the season's viability.

Restall said no season-ticket holders were lost, possibly through loyalty or the fact that season-ticket prices suddenly got lower.

"We've seen an increase in season-ticket sales, which is great," he said, for the 6,100-seat stadium. The team doesn't share attendance or revenue projections.

Restall acknowledged during an interview at his temporary office on Trumbull Street in Hartford that it's not the strident fan who is going to make his team succeed. "Minor league baseball is like having a picnic and a baseball game breaks out. That explains the atmosphere of the ballpark. It's about the experience. Most people won't remember who won and lost. It's about the entertainment experience," he said.

What's going to set Dunkin' Donuts Park apart from most minor-league stadiums, Restall said, are amenities like a 360-degree concourse; dugout suites that rent on a nightly basis to groups where guests will be sitting closer to the batter than the pitcher; and a 7,000-square-foot stadium club used for non-gameday events.

Return on Investment

They'll ultimately measure return on their marketing investment by how the team performs at the box office and its impact on the community, Restall said.

To be successful in attracting fans, the Yard Goats will need to use all the marketing tools at its disposal, including its website, social media and the press, said Martin S. Roth, dean of the Barney School of Business at the University of Hartford. It needs to keep building awareness of the new stadium to draw in fans.

The delayed stadium opening, Roth said, might end up being a good thing.

"One of the challenges in the early season is inclement weather," Roth said.

Restall said he and his staff have been promoting the team tirelessly with the mascots (Chompers and Chew Chew) during events like the St. Patrick's Day parade in Hartford and national anthem auditions in Manchester.

Embrace Millennials

Roth said there are opportunities to embrace the influx of young people moving into downtown Hartford. He said the stadium's opening works well with the cycle of summer interns and new hires starting their post-graduation careers.

"There are lots of ways of leveraging … the more and more young people living downtown," Roth said. "They're looking for fun things to do."

He added the Yard Goats must coordinate events with large organizations to attract more fans. That includes the University of Hartford's business school. "We'll think of ways to do it that might make sense for us," Roth said, which could include events involving faculty and staff or student orientation.

Roth said marketing to groups like Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE) would also help.

Julie Daly Meehan, HYPE's executive director, said the Yard Goats have already reached out.

"We've absolutely been in touch," she said. "HYPE has organized an annual group outing to catch a game for years, and we definitely plan to continue the tradition in Hartford with the Yard Goats this summer."

Mainstream Marketing

As the home season opener approaches May 31, marketing is going to be more mainstream, with the launch of a radio, TV, print and digital ad campaign, Restall said. He didn't discuss actual dollars, but did say a 40 percent shorter season doesn't equate to 40 percent less spending on marketing.

The team has hired Mintz & Hoke in Avon and Elkinson + Sloves in Farmington to spread the word.

Jay Sloves, a partner at Elkinson + Sloves, said a lot of the focus will be on telling people how easy and affordable it will be to get to the stadium. They'll also be selling the stadium experience.

"The narrative is about the stadium, its conveniences, its cool amenities, and, of course, parking and driving there go hand in hand," he said.

Signage is key

The team will be using a lot of signage to market the convenience of parking, Sloves said. Signs will be posted around downtown indicating how short a walk it is to the new stadium from various lots and garages.

"Environmental signage is going to be part of the grassroots marketing," Sloves said.

Marketing will also focus on the fact many people who already work downtown have parking. They won't need to move their cars and can just walk to the stadium. Sloves said he has timed the walk from the Church Street parking garage and he can be there in three minutes.

The team will also have to market the stadium's accessibility from I-91 and I-84 and the various ways fans can approach without using the interstates.

Probably the toughest part of the marketing right now is the ballpark, what fans will see inside, from specialty food stands like Bear's Smokehouse BBQ to self-flushing toilets and a video scoreboard rumored to be the largest in minor-league sports.

"There's nothing minor league about Dunkin' Donuts Park," Sloves said.

Yard Goats marketing has been clever and fun, Sloves added.

"We want to continue with that with the parking. We want the campaign to make you smile. We want the parking experience to make you smile," Sloves said, adding ultimately what's going to be the most effective marketing for the team is word of mouth.

"As we open the ballpark, people will get to experience it … and share their experiences," Restall said. "That will be the best kind of marketing. All the components are very important."

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