Steve's Note: I originally approached Jordi about contributing a post to this year's DRB Annual, but when the Annual didn't come together, I still wanted to make sure to give his piece plenty of recognition. Thanks, Jordi, and enjoy your year abroad!
As fans, we love to play the role of General Manager. We love examining the roster, peering into the processes, and coming up with ideas on how the team can improve their on-the-field performance. This is not new and it is not exclusive to Rays fans. Baseball fans have probably been playing GM since the days of Harry and George Wright and the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Over the last few baseball seasons, my personal view of the Rays has veered from the normal realm of second guessing and predictive analysis. I’ve grown to trust most of the decisions of Andrew Friedman and his staff and Joe Maddon and his staff. They are smart, dedicated, and have built a winner in the Tampa Bay area. Since I am happy with the on-the-field product (save for a Burrell here or a Shoppach there, of course), I have been looking at other ways for the Rays to improve. More specifically, I’ve been looking at other aspects of the behind-the-scene product.
Although we are told every on field transaction, outside of the top of the Rays front office, we are usually not told the details and qualifications of each Rays front office hire and we definitely don’t do any analysis on why they will make the Rays better. Maybe we should. Maybe we should look at the Rays Front Office page and see if we can’t find their employees on LinkedIn to find out their qualifications and even possibly advocate anyone new to join the staff that pushes the Rays’ message to the world.
As I mentioned on a post over at Rays Index a few months ago, I think the Rays need to be more creative in their pitches to get people to the ballpark. Everyone knows the economy in the Tampa Bay area stinks, traffic is a mess, and Tropicana Field is not optimally located. We know. We also know the Rays front office is smart enough to make chicken salad out of a payroll that could only afford chicken droppings. So why can’t they do the same for butts in the seats?
Yes, the Trop is a dump. But so was Shea Stadium. Fenway Park has its horrible seats, Old Comiskey Park was legendary for its dungeon-esque motif, and don’t get me started how bad I heard old Cleveland Stadium was. There is no excuse for the Rays not to be drawing two million people per season to the Trop.
With the 2012 season rapidly advancing upon us, and the Rays featuring a brand new Director of Marketing, I’d like to offer 12 suggestions to the Rays front office and to the Rays universe on how we can get people involved, engaged, and eventually, to the ballpark.
Submit Your Story
First of all, I think we need to improve the idea of what it means to be a Rays fan. As I wrote in my letter to Stu Sternberg, the Rays community is very tenuous right now. We don’t know whether the team is coming or going or where they will play in 20, 10, or even 5 years. The Rays community needs to be strengthened. The front office needs to build a better Rays Nation/Universe/Posse/Gang/other collective metaphor. They need to re-define what it means to be a Rays fan, which is of course different than a Yankees fan, a Cubs fan, a Dodgers fan, or a fan of any other team.
My first suggestion would be to increase fan culture and let fans do the defining.
I’ve been reading a lot of the work of Henry Jenkins over the last few years. Jenkins is a professor of media at the University of Southern California who has focused much of his work on fan culture, how fans contribute to a story and often times re-mold cultural components to express themselves and show off a new blended culture. I think this is exact what the Rays need. They need fans to pronounce their fandom loud and proud to counter what seems to be the national popular opinion that the "Rays have no fans".
Last year, the Rays aired commercials featuring local actors that depicted scenes from the ballpark. There was the first date, the mother and the daughter at the game, and the woman at the ballpark with her boss. They were amusing and sorta interesting. But they were staged. Trust me, I was one of the 50 extras used in the background.
(As an aside, even though I was in two of the commercials and also made an appearance in the Rays "ground rules" video before home games, I could never download any of the videos for my private collection; I had to ask @RaysBaseball on twitter for assistance.)
This season, I’d like to see the Rays open up storytelling to the fans. Instead of using actors and shooting commercials at the Trop with 50 or so volunteers, how about having an open competition where fans can submit their own videos of what it’s like to be a Rays fan? Open video submissions are all the rage with broadcasts such as America’s Got Talent and other talent shows. Even McDonald’s is relying on user stories to advertise their new mini-McNuggets. Those shows and campaigns rely on easily submitted user contributions. For America’s Got Talent, for example, contributors can either email their youtube links or submit the video via the America’s Got Talent website. The Rays could host a similar page on their MLB site page.
Like the three commercials I saw last season, I would like to see three categories of submissions: family, adult (16 and above), and kids (under 16). Each video submission should be one minute or less and should promote what it means to be a Rays fan. The only caveat is that the videos cannot have any MLB-exclusive game footage. After selection by the Rays staff, the best of the three categories would air throughout the season in commercials during Fox Sports and Sun Sports broadcasts and maybe even on the Trop JumboTron. These are real stories by real fans and with luck one might even go viral. At worst, they will lead to an easy buzz in the Tampa Bay area as the contestants with the winning submissions would make easy feature subjects for the local media.
Bring in the Bands
Besides fan video submission contests, I would like to see the Rays also hold a contest for a new team song. Since becoming the Rays in 2008, the team has featured such songs as "The Trop Boys", "It’s Our Season", and the always stellar "Rays Theme Song". While these songs are all great, they have one glaring weakness: they are all hip-hop and not everyone is a hip-hop fan. What about a song for the rock fans or the country fans out there?
The Rays should host a "Search for a New Song" contest for local (Central Florida) unsigned music acts. Musical performers could submit songs from one of three genres: rock, county, and "urban". The top five of each genre would then be posted on the Rays website for fans to vote for. Fans could also visit a music listening booth at the Trop during games where they can put on headphones, listen to the selections, and write their choice on paper and submit it to a ballot box.
This type of contest would give exposure to a lot of acts in Tampa’s very underrated local music scene. It would also provide the Rays with three theme songs they can play throughout the season, one in each genre of popular music. They could also feature the winning groups in one of the Rays concert series promotions or perhaps they could open for a larger national act. This is a win-win for the local music scene and the Rays.
Along with getting fans into the local music scene, perhaps the Rays could also get their players involved. As Ben Zobrist has promoted his wife’s music to the Rays Universe during every at-bat, I’d like to see players work with local musicians for their own personalized at-bat music. As long as the tune is approved by the Rays front office, it would be a great boost for area music makers.
Channel Your Inner YouTube
We all know MLB has a phobia in regards to youtube. Although MLB.com has a channel, I could find no team that has their own "channel". This is odd, especially considering the Charlotte Stone Crabs and several other minor league teams have their own central place on youtube for "official videos". But it is the way of the world according to MLB and their draconian social media policy. Given their predicament, however, the Rays should petition Major League Baseball to let them create a youtube channel as a way to engage their fans.
A few years ago, I worked as a Social Media Advisor for a small Tampa-based pro wrestling company. While putting together a video strategy, it dawned on me that every wrestler could be a spokesperson. Although some were tough to track down, the staff and I tried to get wrestlers to promote upcoming shows every week. The Rays could do the same thing if they had their own youtube channel. It would take no time at all, for example, for David Price to record a message on his phone to the fans encouraging them to come out to an upcoming series with the Red Sox or Yankees. Price could send the footage to the Rays staff who could then put a Rays logo on it and post it on the official youtube page. Then, they and Price both post the link on their respective twitter and facebook accounts, and through the wonderful magic of the Internet, thousands of fans will believe David Price is talking directly to them.
With Jonathan Gantt, one of the geniuses behind the youtube-based "This Is Stone Crabs Baseball" series now working for the Rays, using youtube should be a no-brainer. I’d like to see Gantt also try to replicate the Stone Crabs commercials with the Rays or come up with some other great creative ideas.
Overall, the Rays need to be more cutting edge with social media, not just Youtube. Besides the aforementioned self-shot videos, and a plethora of players tapping away on Twitter, they need to catch up with the Indians, Astros, and Giants, those teams MLB Social Media critic Paul Swyden calls the "MLB Social Media Leaders".
Tear Down the Twitter Wall
There is no doubt the Rays have a very robust twitter community. Dozens of players, manager Joe Maddon, and several of the front office folks have accounts and they all engage the fans. Last season, the Rays also hosted CNBC's Darren Rovell in a highly publicized well-attended tweet-up. But whereas that is a good base, they need to take the next steps. Social media is all about accessibility, and making individuals accessible. The Rays front office should hook the players up with the fans as much as possible. For example, the 2012 tweet-up (assuming there is one) should feature at least one of the more popular Rays tweeters for a Q&A before the game. Maybe other fans can be on the field for batting practice, play catch, or even take a tour of the clubhouse.
One of the most seminal moments of 2011 for the Rays twittersphere was when David Price brought a lucky Rays fan a cup of coffee at her workplace. Connections like that create incredibly strong bonds between fans and players - more so than fan and team. But if the team is seen as the facilitator of linking the fans with the players, then the team will see a huge bump in approval.
It might not also be a bad idea for the team to ask fans for their twitter handles when they buy season ticket packages. Then perhaps the team could get players to tweet a "thank you" to the fan for buy the
tickets. I for one would be excited if BJ Upton or Sam Fuld or even Will Rhymes tweeted me with a "Hey @JordiScrubbings, thanks for buying tickets this year. See you at the ballpark! #Rays". Simple, yet effective.
Back to the subject of great video ideas, I would also like to see more use of Raymond in videos. Way back in the early days of the Devil Rays, the promotional staff used Raymond in videos such as "Raymond Goes Golfing". If you have never seen the video, it is Raymond doing zany mascot things at a golf course. It’s hokey but fun. And it needs to be done more often.
While the players are the main draw during the season, Raymond could be a huge character during the offseason. During this past offseason, for example, there could have been videos of Raymond excitedly running out to the field at the Trop and then looking dejected when he realizes there is no more baseball to be played. Numerous videos could be made throughout Tampa as Raymond looks for baseball to cheer for. He could visit Little League Fields, softball leagues, high school fields, and maybe even the USF Baseball Team. The series could run until mid-February, when in the last video Raymond is awoken from his slumber at Port Charlotte by the sounds of bats hitting baseballs. Then he runs out to the field and hugs the arriving players.
Another way to use Raymond would be to have him welcome new players. Maybe Raymond could appear on youtube holding a sign that says "Welcome, Jose Molina" or "Welcome back, Carlos". With all the new personnel the Rays have acquired over the offseason, a video of Raymond picking up and putting down "welcome" signs might last over a minute or two. Needless to say, there is a lot of potential for Raymond to be a star of social shorts.
Besides twitter, facebook, and the aforementioned youtube, it would be a great idea for the Rays to be active on foursquare. Perhaps they can get into some of the foursquare promoting done by companies such as Starbucks, where a guest’s Xth "check-in" gets the guest a free cup of coffee or something similar. For the Rays check-ins might be rewarded with a discounted hot dog or perhaps a discounted game ticket. Maybe the fan who checks into the most games throughout the season wins an autographed baseball and a free t-shirt. Maybe the Rays could combine a t-shirt giveaway with foursquare check-ins for the smart phone inclined, and zip code release for the non-smart phone folks.
Apply the App
With the growth of the mobile apps, it would behoove the Rays to jump on the app bandwagon before it is too late. The Rays should tap the creative genius of an app creator computer programmer person and make have them design an app that would say either when the game starts, what the scores is, or whether or not the Rays are winning.
Personally, I’d like to see an app that displays Raymond or DJ Kitty holding a sign with either the game time or the score. When the Rays are winning, the mascot is standing and happily displaying the sign. When the Rays are losing, the mascot is sitting on the ground holding the sign. And if the Rays win, the mascot could do a little dance on the phone. I’m far from a computer genius, but I think that might be possible.
Scholastic Super Fans
This idea is almost too easy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rays already did it. I’d like to see the Rays reward the best students in the Bay Area with tickets and gifts. I’d like to see an "A for Attendance" program, where students who don’t miss a day of school during the school year can be rewarded with at least one ticket to a ballgame with the purchase of one other ticket. Considering the one other ticket would probably be an adult guardian, and the child and the adult will probably buy food and concessions anyway, giving a few free tickets would be that bad.
I’d also like to see the Rays reward the kids with straight "A’s". Maybe the valedictorians from each area high school can be recognized before an early summer game. Maybe any kid with straight A’s gets half off a ticket. I’m sure that would depend on how many kids have straight A’s. I am assuming there might be a thousand or so in the Bay Area. Then again, I don’t have kids, and tend to think they are smarter than they are most of the time.
Show Your City
Before this hockey season, the powers that be behind the Tampa Bay Times Forum poured money into their facility to make it much more fan friendly. Among the new amenities I noticed (perhaps they were always there) were more pictures of Tampa and the Tampa skyline. I’ve never seen those elements at the Trop. The Trop needs to be the Forum of St. Pete.
The west side of the bridge has personality, but you wouldn’t know it by visiting Tropicana Field. While outside, there are markers telling the story of baseball in St. Pete, there is very little inside. And what there is represents Tampa more so than St. Pete. There is no Dali exhibit, no showcase of the performers from Pier 60 in Clearwater, no pictures of the Underwater Gardens, no pictures of the pier, and no pictures of the St. Petersburg skyline. There is a cigar bar and the TBT Party Deck in the mode of Ybor City, both Tampa symbols. The Rays need to let fans know they are in St. Pete when they go to Tropicana Field.
One step in the right direction, besides putting pictures of the area in Tropicana Field, might be to let Dali-inspired artists redesign the Party Deck. Just a thought.
Return of the Junior Wreck
In my opening, I mentioned that we hardly know anything about the marketing, public relations, or advertising part of the Rays front office. Besides a twitter account or two, these people work in near anonymity. But that hasn’t always been the case.
In the late 1990s, when the Devil Rays were the dumps of baseball, no one came to games, and Vince Namoli strangled optimism with his steel claws of despair, the Devil Rays had one of the greatest baseball promotional minds on their staff. During his tenure with the Devil Rays, Mike Veeck, son of legendary baseball marketing genius Bill Veeck, conjured promotions such as "Christmas in May Night" and the ironic "Lawyer Appreciation Night". Rumor has it he also wanted to paint the fake turf purple for no other reason than to show that it wasn’t real grass.
Unfortunately, Mike Veeck had to leave the organization in 1999 due to the health of his daughter. According to reports, he still advised the team, but I can’t find what he did in that capacity or how long advisement lasted.
These days Mike Veeck is a consultant for FunIsGood.net and Executive Advisor to the Chairman of the Goldkang Group, a conglomerate that owns or manages several minor league teams. As a staff member of the Goldkang Group, Veeck has been the mind behind several amazing promotions done by the Fort Myers Miracle, including "Tebow Night", "Mike Tyson Ear Night", and "Don’t Be A Bengal, Be A Good Citizen Night". Every year Miracle promotions are listed among the best in the minors, and Mike Veeck is a big part of their success.
Now that the Rays are under much more open-minded control, perhaps it’s time to bring back Mike Veeck. Perhaps he could be the Joe Maddon of the front office, with a well-publicized forum for his out of the box thinking. Veeck would have a big league team that would appreciate his creative mind, a big league marketing budget to work with, and one mission: to draw people to the ballpark in way that the on-the-field product has not yet done.
Mimic the Mothership
According to Paul Swyden in Part 2 of his fangraphs.com essay on MLB’s Social Media efforts, MLB’s "Fan Cave" initiative helped MLB reach an increased number of fans in the cherished 18-34 demographic. The project, according to Swyden, "earned more than 100 million social-media impressions". Although the MLB Fan/Man Cave was incredibly male-dominant and borderline sexist, its reach was impressive.
The Rays should copy the success of the MLB with their own "fan cave". They should let a pair of fans live in Tropicana Field all season. The lucky pair would stay in the Trop, attend home games and watch road games on a TV in living quarters provided by the team. Meanwhile, the pair could be visited by members of the Rays organization or perhaps other local or related celebrities, to include beat writers, bloggers, or even players’ wives, girlfriends, or family members. Maybe they could even post videos of the Rays Fan Cave on the aforementioned proposed Rays youtube channel.
Band of Bloggers
Finally, I’d like to see the Rays better embrace their growing blogosphere. The Rays have always been very friendly with local bloggers but as the Rays blogosphere has grown immensely in the last 2 years, it would be nice to see them host a bloggers-only media event. The Mets, for example, have had annual blogger-only interview opportunities with manager Terry Collins and general manager Sandy Alderson. To my knowledge, this site is the only one that has had events coordinated with the team, and even those were through Baseball Prospectus.com. What if the Rays reached out to bloggers and invited them to something exclusive? It would provide validation for the cabal of writers who labor over computers typing away results and analysis of their favorite team.
I know this is long, but these are my ideas on how the Rays can better reach their fan base. There is a chance the Rays might be doing some of these, or maybe some will be unleashed this year. If that’s the case, that’s awesome and I would love to hear how successful these ideas are. Unfortunately, I won’t be around as I am headed to Afghanistan for the duration of the 2012 baseball season. Hopefully when I get back the Rays will basking in the glory of another successful season and maybe even another banner. And hopefully the team will be more engrained in the social conscious of the Tampa Bay area and two million or more residents will have attended games to cheer them on.