Minor League Hits Grand Slam By Marketing New Image to Kids

Attendance is at a record high, and so are sales of team merchandise

A DEJECTED seven-year-old, Eric Shawtelle, walked away from the Portland Sea Dogs ticket window. He had come to buy tickets for a Father's Day game, but the city's new minor-league baseball team had sold out for the 14th time this season.

``I like slugger and the lighthouse,'' he says about the mascot and a small lighthouse that rises behind the center field wall when `The Dogs' hit a home run. ``Almost all my friends have Sea Dog hats,'' Eric says.

The popularity of the Sea Dogs and their merchandise reflects one of the most successful turnarounds in pro sports. Numerous minor-league teams, like this one, have revived an institution near death 20 years ago by developing identities and marketing them to kids and families.

Attendance at the 117 US minor-league stadiums has jumped from 17 million in 1984 to a record 30 million in 1993. Sparked by new logos and uniforms, merchandise sales have grown from $15 million in 1992 to $45 million in 1993.

The Sea Dogs, a term sailors use to describe seals, have the second-worst record in the 10-team AA Eastern League but the best record in attendance. The team plays two levels below its major-league affiliate, the Florida Marlins, but is No. 3 in merchandise sales in the minor leagues.

``They're successful because it's something the whole family can go to,'' says Debbie Shawtelle, Eric's mother.

Most of the crowd at a recent game were children in black-and-teal team hats, jackets, and T-shirts. The new stadium, Hadlock Field, seats 5,910. The outfield walls are covered with ads, and the field's 16 luxury boxes sold for up to $11,000 each. The most expensive tickets cost $6.50.

Sea Dogs General Manager Charles Eshbach says merchandising accounts for 20 percent to 30 percent of team income. A shop sells Sea Dogs T-shirts for $16, baby bibs for $5.50, and winter jackets for $117. The logo - a seal with a bat in its teeth - and colors were chosen for kids. ``We've gotten mail orders from all 50 states, Australia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and England,'' Mr. Eshbach says.

Since 1992, the major league has helped minor-league clubs license and sell goods in sporting-good stores. Several minor-league teams have increased sales by dropping parent-team names and adopting their own, sometimes unusual names and logos that reflect the areas they play in.

Last season, the Knoxville, Tenn., Blue Jays became the Smokies; the Columbia, S.C., Mets became the Capital City Bombers. Other new team names include the Mudcats, Crawdads, and Polecats.

Teams with known names, like the Durham Bulls, made famous in the movie Bull Durham, have also seen sales rise. ``It's an obvious marketing tool - people becoming walking billboards for your team,'' says Jennifer St. Denis, minor-league licensing manager for Major League Baseball Properties.

The arrival of basketball star Michael Jordan as a Birmingham, Ala., Baron this year boosted attendance and sales, but minor-league clubs attribute their resurgence to facility improvement and trying new things. More than 45 minor-league stadiums have been built since 1985, and most teams stage entertainment between innings, says the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. ``People want to feel like they're getting something extra,'' says El Paso Diablos General Manager Rick Parr.

Founded in 1892, the Diablos run a promotion at each game and host seminars for minor-league executives. Many officials say the majors can learn from the minors. ``At times, they lose sight of the fact that children are so very important to the future of the game,'' Eshbach says.

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