Have you ever heard of the Casper Ghosts, Madison Hatters, or Queens Kings? If not, it’s because they no longer exist. But Minor League Baseball is betting you’ll still want to sport a hat or shirt bearing the logo of these dead teams.
MiLB reissues merchandise of about 15 defunct teams every year—quietly. The series is called the Hometown Collection, but the league has not heavily marketed the gear in the past. This year, MiLB is pushing the apparel harder, and bringing back an especially pun-filled, alliterative, lovable group of team names: Capital City Bombers, Casper Ghosts, Denver Bears, Madison Hatters, Madison Muskies, Queens Kings, and Wichita Wranglers so far this year, and more are coming.
As a result, MiLB expects its highest merchandise revenue ever. The league has its Opening Day on Thursday—one week after MLB teams start their seasons.
There are 120 minor league teams: one Triple-A, one Double-A, one Class-A Advanced and one regular Class-A for each of the 30 MLB teams. In addition, there are another 40 Short-Season A squads. In some sizable American cities that don’t have a pro team (Portland, Nashville, Charlotte, to name just a few), a minor league team offers the biggest baseball venue in town.
That’s 160 teams, a massive family across the country, and they relocate frequently. When they do, they “have left some pretty popular names behind,” says Pat O’Conner, MiLB president. (He’s the minor league counterpart to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.) “The desire for some throwbacks and defunct marks was evident,” he says, and hence: the Hometown Collection.
MiLB licensing revenues were stuck in the low $50-million range for several years in a row, barely budging, but grew by nearly $5 million in 2014 and again in 2015, to $65 million. For 2017, MiLB expects a $10 million increase. (2016 figures will come out in June.)
Relaunching defunct logos has been a huge win for the Minors.
The appeal of minor league merchandise isn’t really about baseball, but about love for the communities where the teams are from, if you ask the people at Brandiose, a San Diego design firm that has redesigned existing team logos, and come up with logos for brand new teams from scratch, for MiLB, MLB, and the NBA.
“Minor League Baseball tells the stories of American communities,” says Jason Klein, the firm’s cofounder. “It celebrates home towns.”
When Brandiose gets hired to design a new MiLB team, or rethink the look of an existing one, the team packs up and heads to the small town or city where the team plays. “We eat at the local greasy spoons, we take tours, we speak with mayors and fanatics and local community leaders,” says Klein. “I think people imagine two guys in San Diego throwing darts at the wall, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth. We’ve been a mile deep in a coal mine in West Virginia, we’ve been at the Boeing plant in Everett, Wash.”
That’s what Brandiose did last year when MiLB tasked it with creating a new identity for the Colorado Rockies’ Double-A team when it relocated from New Britain, Conn., to Hartford. (So the team is very much alive, and not part of the Hometown Collection.) Local citizens in Hartford described themselves, Klein says, as “bold, small, temperamental, tough, resilient. So we looked at animals that fit those characteristics.” Brandiose came up with the yard goat, which is also railroad slang for a locomotive that stays in the rail yard for the purpose of rearranging other trains that are headed to big cities.
The yard goat, as a mascot, could fit any minor league sports team (players working hard to get to the Majors one day) but also specifically fits Hartford, a once-thriving city that is still home to many corporate offices but has seen a brutal recession. (The sports blog Deadspin recently put Hartford dead last on a ranking of American cities.) And Brandiose used the same color scheme of the Hartford Whalers, the NHL team that left Hartford in 1997 (and became the Carolina Hurricanes) and is still extremely popular locally on hats and shirts. The Hartford Yard Goats had no home ballpark in their first season, but will play in brand-new Dunkin Donuts Park this season.
Many minor league teams have similarly playful, charming mascots and names that have a legitimate connection to their city. In Massachusetts, the Lowell Spinners (Short-Season A affiliate of the Red Sox) is a nod to Lowell’s history as a textile mill town; Nashville has the Sounds (Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s), an obvious reference to the city’s rich history of music; the Triple-A affiliate of the Phillies are the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, a reference to pig iron, used locally to make steel. (Forbes has ranked the IronPigs among the five most valuable minor league teams in the country.)
Most minor league teams are not lucrative investments. The Batavia Muckdogs, in western New York State, have lost $100,000 eight seasons in a row, for example. But minor league merchandise may prove more popular than actual ticket sales.
The success of the Hometown Collection items is also surely part of the broader trend around “throwback” fashion. Look no further than Adidas, which had a breakout 2016 on the strength of its Originals line, which includes Superstars and Stan Smiths—old, classic streetwear sneakers that are suddenly cool again.
And there’s some hope that the love for MiLB gear can help boost the Majors, too, at a time when many believe pro baseball is losing fans to the all-dominant NFL and flashy NBA. “We are one game from the top of Major League Baseball, all the way through the country, down to Little League,” says O’Conner. “And we [MiLB] develop interest at the grassroots level. We are clearly an asset to Major League Baseball, and they’re an asset to us.”
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.
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