It wasn’t so long ago — just a few years, actually — when people were wondering out loud whether this region could effectively support minor-league professional sports teams, and often answering the question with a ‘no,’ or, at best, a cautious ‘maybe.’
This was a time not long after Springfield had lost its team in the NBA’s Developmental League, the Armor (it never really caught on at all, as you might recall), and was soon to lose its franchise in the American Hockey League, a far bigger blow, because AHL hockey had been part of the fabric of Springfield since FDR was in the White House.
How things have changed in the matter of a few years.
Springfield’s new entry in the AHL, the Thunderbirds, had a hugely successful first season, according to a number of yardsticks, including attendance, season-ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, visibility (the team’s logo is everywhere in Springfield), and three awards from the league at its annual marketing meeting last month.
Meanwhile, the Valley Blue Sox, an affiliate of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, have made Holyoke and MacKenzie Stadium a true summertime destination for families across the region (see story, page 29).
The team, which struggled earlier this decade, has blossomed into the NECBL’s top draw, ranking 11th nationally among 169 summer collegiate teams in 2016; it’s even doing better, attendance-wise, than 20 A-level pro teams and three AA squads.
The teams are flourishing for three main reasons. First is a huge emphasis on marketing and brand building, something many businesses put too far down on the list of priorities. Second, they’re listening to the customers and responding to what they’re hearing. And third, they’re firmly focused on that most important ingredient in business success: value.”
All this is good for the region, because it needs things for families to do, and it needs more of the things (and there are many of them) that will attract tourists, and, more importantly, young professionals, to this area.
But the answer to the question ‘how are these teams doing this?’ is the most important, and inspirational, part of the equation, and there are actually lessons here for all business owners.
The teams are flourishing for three main reasons. First is a huge emphasis on marketing and brand building, something many businesses put too far down on the list of priorities. Second, they’re listening to the customers and responding to what they’re hearing. And third, they’re firmly focused on that most important ingredient in business success: value.
And because they’re doing all that, the numbers flashed on the scoreboards at the MassMutual Center and MacKenzie Field are only a small factor in the success quotient.
Indeed, Hunter Golden, general manager of the Blue Sox, hit the nail on the head when he said, “what keeps the engine going is the fan experience.” The Blue Sox and Thunderbirds have fully embraced that concept with promotions and attractions ranging from live music to a Star Wars Night, from guest appearances from iconic professional wrestlers to ketchup-and-mustard races; from low-priced tickets to deals on concessions.
These aren’t gimmicks — OK, in some cases, they’re gimmicks — but they are proven methods of creating a market for a product by providing value and what the customer is ultimately looking for.
As we said earlier, these are valuable lessons for all those doing business today. So, not only have people stopped asking if this region can support minor-league teams, they’re looking at those teams as models when it comes to how to succeed in business.