For minor-league baseball, colorful uniforms can keep fan interest afloat
For Eric Menzer, Terry Byrom and other baseball traditionalists, a team's jersey comes in two colors, white for home games and gray for road trips.
But as baseball struggles to reach younger people, you need a few extras — and maybe some brighter clothing — to reach a larger audience, said Menzer, 52, president of the York Revolution, and Byrom, 53, the Harrisburg Senators’ radio announcer since 2005 and the team’s public-relations director.
Among the extras, they said, is outfitting the hometown team in alternative uniforms — often colorful, even wacky — for a handful of home games each season.
And because of changes in the way uniforms are made, minor-league teams like the Revolution, the Senators and the Lancaster Barnstormers can now afford to wear more than the old white or gray.
Fans seem to love it.
The more popular specialty jerseys, such as those for military or breast-cancer promotions, are auctioned off to fans, with the proceeds given to charitable causes.
“It used to be that if you were making a baseball jersey, it meant a lot of sewing, patching on letters,” Menzer said. But now teams can take advantage of “sublimation printing” technology — the process of printing an image on a special sheet of paper and transferring the image onto fabric.
“You can really take any picture and put it on a baseball jersey, and that has really allowed us to push the envelope in terms of some of the funny, wacky things we can do with the jerseys,” he said.
For their 70 home games this year, the Revolution will wear six different “regular” jerseys, including two versions of a traditional home white, a new “Revs Time” jersey that reflects the team’s 2017 marketing theme, plus the team’s first-ever black vest jersey. The team also will wear three specialty one-game jerseys. The Revolution jerseys, both standard and specialty versions, are made by TGI Team Gear Inc. of Rhode Island.
The Senators, meanwhile, will use six jerseys this season, said Byrom, who noted that specialty one-off jerseys have spread from the minor leagues upward to the Major Leagues and to other sports, Byrom said.
He feels the NBA has picked up on the trend faster than any other major sports, but adds that everyone is following.
“The minor leagues, with their innovative nature, have kind of fed everyone,” he said.
While the sale of team gear like jerseys and caps helps the bottom line, it is not a primary revenue source for minor-league teams, Byrom and other officials said. For most of the 244 teams in minor-league baseball, ticket sales and advertising dollars are the main sources of income.
For charity, for sale
Specialized jerseys for the York Revolution are auctioned off for charity, Menzer said. However, leftover jerseys are often put on sale in the team’s merchandise store, where the team does get the proceeds.
The sale of the unusual jerseys “is definitely a plus. There’s no question that a design … the things our players wear on the field, sell in the team store.” Menzer said.
The Barnstormers, York’s rivals in the Atlantic League, have also found the alternate uniforms to be popular with fans, and are planning two specialty-jersey auctions in 2017.
“People do like them, but what’s just as important to us is that (the proceeds) go to help our local nonprofits,” said Melissa Tucker, the Barnstormers’ director of business development.
One of the two jerseys being auctioned will feature some form of military design, and the other is still being decided, she said.
For some teams, selling specialty jerseys can be as popular as selling jerseys of individual players, who in the minor leagues may not stay with a team long enough to become fan favorites.
“We don’t promote a player the way the Nationals would promote a Bryce Harper (an All-Star outfielder), but when guys come back here for a second year with us, they become a fan favorite, and they’re more familiar,” said Ashley Grotte, the Senators’ marketing director. “Obviously, our fans want them to go up (to the majors), but it is comforting for our fans to see that familiar face again that next season.”
More than baseball
Menzer describes the Revolution as a hospitality and entertainment company that plays baseball.
“We could never survive on baseball fans alone,” he said. “And I’m a baseball traditionalist at one level … I don’t personally need all of the other accoutrements to keep me entertained for nine innings, as long as the game is being played at a decent pace.”
But he knows that baseball is having problems reaching a younger audience, so he’s among those who supports new wrinkles, within reason, to reach the millennial generation.
Even though attendance is booming for most teams and Major League Baseball has brought in record revenues for the past 13 years in a row, baseball attracts the oldest viewers of the country’s four major sports.
The average age of baseball viewers is 53, compared with 47 for the NFL and 37 for the NBA, according to Nielsen ratings. Also, the number of youngsters from age 7 to 17 playing baseball in the U.S. fell 41 percent between 2002 and 2013, from 9 million to 5.3 million.
Even Harper, the 24-year-old Nationals’ outfielder, has called baseball “a tired sport.”
Hoping to boost interest, baseball leaders are doing things like speeding up games with rule changes and offering subscription ticket services to offer more flexibility in when you can come to a game.
The specialized jerseys are among the ways to increase interest.
They are geared toward a range of fans, Menzer said, such as kids who come in with a parent to a game and say, “Dad, that uniform’s cool! Can we come back here when they’re doing that jersey auction and buy that?”
For one late August game this summer, for example, the Revolution will be known as the “York Pretzels,” with the name appearing on jerseys sponsored by PeoplesBank. The uniforms will have mustard and salt designs on the shoulders.
“One of the things that has become a fun little goof in minor-league baseball these days is food-themed team-renaming for a game,” Menzer noted. “And we figured, when you think of a typical food in York County, you think of snack food, so we decided to claim the pretzel to represent that aspect of York’s culinary heritage.”
All of the game-worn “York Pretzels” jerseys will later be auctioned to fans, with proceeds to benefit Penn-Mar Human Services, a nonprofit that serves people with intellectual disabilities in southern York County and northern Maryland.
The idea of having fun with specialty uniforms doesn’t stop with the on-field jerseys.
The Revolution sent out a recent April Fool’s Day news release to area media that said the team was planning to wear shorts on hot summer days this summer.
The shorts idea was tried, to mixed reviews, by the Chicago White Sox in the 1970s, and Menzer is adamant that “there are no plans for anyone to wear shorts. Only in batting practice.”