Monday, June 1, 2009

It's Not The Time To Cut...It's the Time To Spend


Colleges all over the country are considering cutting their athletic budgets. Many are even cutting sports programs all together. Washington is dropping men's and women's swimming programs...Pepperdine is dropping women's swimming and diving and men's track and field. Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State will no longer print media guides and Indiana State is dropping men's and women's tennis programs.

While some of these cuts are due to lack of participation and may make sense...there are proposals out there to cut baseball budgets too. One such proposal is the reduction of competitions in a sports off-season (baseball games and practice in the fall.) This, it is thought, will lead to other in-season cuts to college baseball as well.

That's a huge mistake. I have over 20 years of marketing experience and it's a widely held fact that in down times, top of mind products need to maintain or even increase their marketing and promotion activities and expenditures to increase market share. The reasoning is that lesser known brands and competing products will do the obvious and cut back...leaving the door wide open for the stronger brands to get even stronger.

The marketing 101 case study we learned in college still stands today...In the late nineteen-twenties, two companies-Kellogg and Post-dominated the market for packaged cereal. It was still a relatively new market: ready-to-eat cereal had been around for decades, but Americans didn’t see it as a real alternative to oatmeal or cream of wheat until the twenties. So, when the Depression hit, no one knew what would happen to consumer demand. Post did the predictable thing: it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. But Kellogg doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies. (Snap, Crackle, and Pop first appeared in the thirties.) By 1933, even as the economy cratered, Kellogg’s profits had risen almost thirty per cent and it had become what it remains today: the industry’s dominant player.

Baseball is the type of top of mind product that case study after case study alludes to. The executives, Athletic Directors and coaches that run college baseball can't be complacent like Post. There's no doubt that we live in a new live within your means society. That means a more back to basics approach to spending habits. The victims will be luxury resorts, big cars, McMansions, designer wear and jewelry.

But sports is the one back to basic activity that will survive this downturn...that's the way it has always been. The Yankees, Seabiscut, James J Braddock all were depression era heroes who's legend has flourished over 80 years. These sports figures gave hope to a nation on the brink of despair.

Baseball and the college game in particular, is the type of accessible sport that can unite a country once again. One has to look no further than the movie Field of Dreams to understand my point...

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time."

In these tough times, America will look to baseball for entertainment. However it won't be Steinbrenner's version of baseball...it will be the Knothole Gangs version. Like the Hummer and other obnoxious, over the top credit maxing purchases Americans got duped into making over the past decade, baseball fans will realize that they don't need that "gotta be seen" concierge seat behind home plate.

The upper deck will be fine...left and right field bleachers will be a blast again and the sack lunch will replace $20 a serving ballpark sushi. Just like the old days.

I remember my dad and I stopping by a popular and inexpensive BBQ joint in my youth prior to a baseball game. We would get the piled high brisket sandwiches to go, and arrive in left field bleachers about two hours before the start of a game. Between bites, I would chase home run balls while the home team took batting practice. The three things my dad loved more than anything were baseball, BBQ and his kids...On many humid, midwestern Sunday afternoons, he got to enjoy all three.

Buying a ballpark frank is nice now and then, but at $6+ a piece, it just doesn't make economical sense or conjure up the same memories as standing in line at a local landmark and ordering big, messy BBQ sandwiches...I can still smell the whiff of smoked meats and the tangy BBQ sauce overtaking my senses. That memory will always stick with me.

Now, back to how all of this relates to college baseball.

College baseball can play a huge part in bringing back the memories of how simple and beautiful baseball really can be. Baseball fans don't need $250 seats, or $100,000 a year luxury boxes to enjoy the game. They don't care about $90 million dollar players either. They care about performance, players that play their hearts out and an afternoon in the sun or sultry night under the lights....at a cost that won't break the bank.

This is a time when college baseball should increase it exposure, spend more money and position itself as a viable alternative to a pro game that is beginning to spin itself out of control. A family of 4 can enjoy a college game for under $20. If a family brings their own sack lunch or favorite sandwich, the cost of a college game could end up being a fifth of the total price of the pro game. Isn't that what America wants?

But above all, the college player is what baseball purists want to see. A college player is pure, innocent, full of promise and hope. He represents the soul of the game...in it's simplest form. His youthful exuberance and wide eyed excitement as he studies and reacts to every pitch...that's the esence of baseball the fan can embrace...especially in these times. I have been watching college baseball players for decades and I can see it in their eyes...their love for the game is much like what Moonlight Graham was describing in Field of Dreams...

"I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn't. That's what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases - stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That's my wish, Ray Kinsella. That's my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?"

If you have the chance to go to one of the regionals or watch a game on TV...do so. You will see what I mean. This summer, if you are fortunate enough to live near a town that hosts the collegiate summer leagues, go watch them as well. My words will make even more sense. As a fan...it will seem as if you discovered the game all over again.

"And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces."


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good perspective.

Ed R. said...

Wow! You've really got me excited to follow college baseball. I will be doing it on a regular basis next year watching my son. I think I will get a head start in the pla-offs though. thanks.

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