There’s Nothing To Be Embarrassed About

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I’m a fan of ESPN’s Rob Neyer, one of the most astute baseball writers working today. But after reading his recent blog post, not-so-subtly titled “Omaha Joins Ranks of the Embarrassing”, it’s clear that he doesn’t have a strong grasp of Minor League Baseball operating principles.

The post is inspired by Omaha’s recent name switch from “Royals” to “Storm Chasers”, and draws heavily from my MiLB.com article on the subject.

Writes Neyer:

There are some truly awful minor-league team names out there. An abbreviated list: IronBirds, Doubledays, Baysox, RiverDogs, LumberKings, TinCaps, Intimidators, BlueClaws, JetHawks, BayBears, SeaDogs, River Bandits, SilverHawks, ValleyCats. Call it the “IronRule”: If you’ve got two capital letters in your name, you’ve done something wrong.

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The latest and greatest case in point: the Omaha Storm Chasers.


He then goes on to quote extensively from my MiLB.com piece, expressing incredulity about the necessity of three mascots before reaching the conclusion that the Storm Chasers name will last for all of “four or five seasons.” 

I understand not liking a team name, Storm Chasers or otherwise, but to snidely dismiss so many Minor League teams as “doing something wrong” completely misses the point. What, exactly, are they doing wrong outside of not declaring an undying loyalty to the parent club (and keep in mind that such affiliations are subject to renewal every two or four years)?

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Should teams be denied the right to develop their own unique identities? Is homogeneity across the Minor League landscape really a better option?

The following is (the bulk of) my reply to Mr. Neyer:

With no control over the product on the field, Minor League teams are first and foremost about entertainment. While in a perfect world the fans would be keeping score while studiously analyzing MLB’s future stars, the reality is that teams surround the game with as many goofy distractions as possible in order to reach the broadest demographic (those who might not care about sports, in other words, but are looking for an evening of affordable family-friendly recreation).

Thumbnail image for Werner Park logo.jpgAnd regarding the Storm Chasers, this has little, if anything, to do with the Royals name falling into “disrepute.” After four decades in beloved but oversized and impersonal Rosenblatt Stadium, the team is moving to a new ballpark and finally has a chance to create a far more vibrant entertainment destination. The Storm Chasers name offers innumerable branding opportunities within the facility, and gives the team the chance to establish a far-reaching identity within the community completely distinct from the parent club.

And, yes, the new name will greatly increase merchandise sales. This is a business, after all, and profit can and should take precedence over a masochistic adherence to tradition. 

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Recent entrants to the “ranks of the embarrassing” that are currently thriving include the Richmond Flying Squirrels and Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Both provide a case study of how and, most likely, why the Storm Chasers name will succeed in the long-term. In a nutshell (pun intended, in the case of the Flying Squirrels): Fun is the name of the game, and should be exemplified in all aspects of the operation. If it takes three mascots to accomplish this, then all the better.

I’m not saying that the Storm Chasers, or Minor League Baseball in general, is beyond reproach. Some fans may find it hard to embrace such a cartoonish and defiantly unserious persona, and “Name the Team” contests that seem to give short shrift to the popular vote are bound to alienate sections of the fan base.

But criticisms of the industry that don’t take into account key operating principles (and themilb_logo.gif recent success thereof) are hard to take seriously, especially when stated in such an obstinate and close-minded fashion. You have to be able to understand something before you can effectively rip it apart.

I’d love to get your thoughts on all of this, whoever you may be. Feel free to dust off the always-underutilized comments section, and of course opinions can be always be expressed through email and Twitter.

To quote the immortal Mr. Sparkle: Can you see that I am serious?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

13 Comments

I don’t get what Neyer’s problem is with these names. If he had said any name with 2 capital letters that has been smashed into one word, I could see the point. But Iron Birds? They’re in Aberdeen, long-time home to a munitions facility. It’s an homage to a major area industry. Iron Pigs the same. Blue Claws is a reference to a local food item/fishing industry product. Again, I’d make it two words, but that’s not what Neyer is saying. It was interesting when my local Wilmington Blue Rocks were affiliated with the Red Sox for 2 years (they switched to blue hats with red bills, and had small “two red socks” logos scattered on the uniforms), but Blue Rocks is a minor league name that goes way back in this area. I don’t think Storm Chasers is a particularly great name (for one, I’m not sure why you would want to bring attention to a negative aspect of the local weather, but, then again, the University of Miami (FL) has been the Hurricanes for many, many years), but evidence of a horrific trend of awful names? Hardly.

P.S. I don’t get what Flying Squirrels has to do with Richmond, but I assume that there is a local connection, and it does lend itself to some cool logos.

I responded to your previous post mere seconds before you put this one up, so some of my answer is over there if you care to read it.

It hurt when you said “and profit can and should take precedence over a masochistic adherence to tradition.” Tradition is very important to me, and if you have good traditions, they don’t have to be contrary to profit. That said, if I was an O-Royals fan, I’d be kind of sad that the name was changing, after having supported them over the years, but I would also understand that this change in stadium is a great opportunity to rebrand and build new traditions. JUST DON’T EVER PUT A SPONSORSHIP ON KYLE FIELD FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!

I realize that teams need to appeal to a broad populace because the true baseball fans (who keep score and scrutinize) aren’t enough to keep a team sustained (saw this happen with a local independent club I supported), but I don’t see why the game necessarily has to come second. I remember that post you made about the Burlington Bees a while back, and that sounded like a great baseball experience.

On a personal note, I’m not a big fan of costumed mascots?most of them are just scary. However… much love to my hometown mascots Ballapeo the jalapeo and Henry the puffy taco. Those guys rock. I just have a soft spot for anthropomorphic Mexican food, I guess.

I like for minor league teams to have their own identities (I went nuts when I found out the Potomac Cannons changed to the Potomac Nationals. WHY???), and as I said before, I like when their names are meaningful (love the Tacoma Rainiers, but similarly went nuts when I found out they took Mt. Rainier out of their logo. WHAT’S WITH THAT?). Storm Chasers is a great name! Only thing better may have been naming themselves Omaha Steaks!

And thanks for all of the logo coverage. I do have such an affinity for good-looking logos! I wish the Missions would get a revamped logo (but keep the Mission!!).

I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments thus far.

“txag08″ you make a great point regarding the importance of tradition, and I didn’t mean to overstate my case in that regard. Personally, I LOVE no-frills Minor League Baseball (such as in Burlington), and one of my favorite events of the year is the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham. I love to keep score, and as a fan prefer to sit quietly in my seat instead of endlessly wandering through the fun and games of an open concourse.

So I certainly didn’t mean to imply that adhering to tradition is in and of itself counter-productive and masochistic. Just that, as situations change, the best teams find a way to adapt instead of complacently assuming that what worked in the past will continue to work in the future.

Also, because I forgot to ask, what kinds of names was this guy suggesting? I read the article, but didn’t see any. Does he want all teams to be named lions, tigers, bears, and bulldogs? BORING! Or named after their parent club? BORING AND AMBIGUOUS.

Ben, you are dead-on-the-money on this one. I, for one, LOVE minor-league teams with unique identities. I stopped to see the Carolina Mudcats on a roadtrip last year and the employeee told me that 50% of ALL their souvenir sales come from the Internet. To me, that’s just good business.

Boom! Steak Dinner. Well said Ben! What does Mr. Neyer have against MiLB (and specifically the Midwest League…damn, nearly 30% of the names he mocked are in the MWL)? Do I wish everybody went to Timber Rattler games for the same reason I do (to actually watch the game)? Of course. But I also realize I wouldn’t be able to watch a team if the rest of those people didn’t come (i.e. the team would have folded). Without the off the field, mascot, names & merchandising you don’t get the majority of the public to come out. As a die-hard baseball fan, I know i’m in the minority. But you don’t have to be angry about it Mr. Neyer. Without the non-baseball stuff, there’s no way my local Timber Rattlers have the funding to replace the dot matrix with an HD video scoreboard before last season or continually improve the park. You wanna poke fun at some of the mascots, fine, i won’t argue with you on that. But geez, Storm Chasers actually makes sense for a team from that part of the country. Neyer refers to the MiLB teams that still carry their parent clubs names…that’s the part that’s lame and shows lack of imagination (Helena Brewers, love you but I’m looking at you). Mr. Neyer…Sgt Hulka has something to say, “Lighten up Robert”

Ben, if you had to guess, what are the Top 10 minor league teams in merchandise sales ? How is it tracked ?

I’m not sure offhand how merchandise sales are tabulated, but they are tracked by the Minor League Baseball head office (based in St. Petersburg). Generally they release an alphabetized list of the Top 25.

I don’t understand what Neyer’s problem is either. Minor League Baseball offers a degree of fun, family value, and connection to the game that MLB can not. When a team names itself to reflect and element of its home city’s history, that only brings it closer to the city itself and of course the fans, which means merchandise sales. Though parent club loyalty is neat too, economically speaking, homogenizing names across the minor leagues to reflect MLB team names would be detrimental. To fans it would be redundant. I admit that I buy my fair share of MILB merchandise. I even prefer it to MLB merchandise. MILB teams often have fresh, dynamic logos and team names that, as I pointed out, reflect the spirits of their respective cities. As a matter of fact, I often buy merchandise for teams whose games I have never gone to. I haven’t even stepped foot in a number of cities whose team merchandise I buy. Among my favorites are the Lakeland Flying Tigers, which pays tribute to the WWII air force division, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, a nod to the region’s history of metal working, and the Brevard County Manatees, an area in which manatees are rather popular. In terms of merchandising and family fun, MILB captures the spirit of baseball to a much greater extent than MLB. Sure, MILB could do without a great deal of its carnival-like atmosphere, but it connects to the fans nonetheless. The uniqueness of the uniforms, the friendly players, the scrappiness the players bring to the game, and the happy-go-lucky mascots make baseball what it should be , a kid’s game.

Mr. Neyer needs to get his panties unbunched! Sure, the names and mascots may be silly, but they’re fun! And as you pointed out, parent team affiliations are always changing in the minors. I’m sure a good chunk of the attendees at many minor league games are families. Based on my own experience with my kids, it’s much easier to convince them to stay through a whole game when there’s lots of between innings “distractions” to amuse them, and as they get older, hey, they actually start to watch some of the game, too! So I say, keep the “awful” names, so my family and I can help support the economy by buying all those bobble-heads, t-shirts, caps, and plush beanies of the multitudinous mascots Meyer seems to dislike so much.
Sue
http://rrrt.mlblogs.com/

Ben, you seemed to miss Neyer’s main point – that the team is basically lying when they say the “fans” picked the name. Omaha management along with Plan B picked the name based on what would market the best. Don’t insult the public by saying it was what they wanted.

Neyer may be a bit out of touch with the minors, but he’s right about the mascots. For the most part, most AAA teams keep the game presentation pure and without too many distractions.

In Trenton, we mad fun of the moniker Richmond Flying Squirrels. Then someone asked Chuck Domino about it, and he said that within 24 hours everyone in the Richmond area knew they had a baseball team in town. This translated into great attendance, sponsorships and a lot of merchandise sold. In other words, the team made some money out of this. The Iron Pigs led the minors in merchandise sales for a few years and are drawing close to 600,000 fans a year. Name them some traditional name and the phenomenon would never have happened.

Will this happen with Omaha? I hope so. But, I like the name.

nomarfan — I’m not sure I’d agree that was Neyer’s “main point”, but you’re certainly correct in that a significant portion of the fan base felt misled by the “Name the Team” contest.

It’s a tricky situation, in that teams want to involve the community in the process but also want to have the final say in the decision. Tough to have it both ways.

Going forward, I think teams staging “name the team” contests should be overwhelmingly clear from the very beginning regarding just how the fan vote will factor into the final decision.

Finally, while Triple-A baseball is generally more staid in its game presentation, that seems to be slowly changing. The IronPigs, Gwinnett Braves, Fresno Grizzlies, and Toledo Mud Hens (among others) are examples of clubs with an aggressive in-game promotional approach.

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