Ep. 47: How Minor League Baseball Continues To Engage Fans with Jeff Lantz
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Jeff Lantz, Senior Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how Minor League Baseball continues to engage fans. With games not currently being played, how are teams still making sure their fans have a great experience? How important is digital to their communication? How can this be an opportunity to make things better? How can you create a formula for fan engagement? How can you set expectations for fans for when they attend games in the future?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and to operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy, and joining me today is Jeff Lantz Senior Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball. Jeff, great to have you on the show.
Thanks for having me, Rob.
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Jeff Lantz: (00:35)
Yeah. I am Senior Director of Communications for Minor League Baseball. I’ve been in baseball for 23 years now, I think. So I worked on the team side with the Iowa Cubs for 11 years and then the Baltimore Orioles for seven years, and then down here mainly baseball for a little more than a handful now. So been a baseball guy my entire life. So, I'm a big fan growing up, enjoyed playing the game and being around it. And I've been lucky enough to work in baseball for my entire post-college existence, I guess. So we're based here in St. Petersburg, Florida, and we have about 55 people here in our office in St. Pete that are waking up every day trying to find ways to promote minor league baseball, enhance the fan experience and get people to come our ball games. And then most importantly, come back again. So that's kind of what our efforts are geared towards here in St. Petersburg.
Rob Cressy: (01:38)
Cool. That's exactly what we're going to talk about today. And we previously had Minor League Baseball President, Pat O'Connor on episode five of the GameDay Playbook talking about how minor league baseball engages fans and elevates the fan experience. Fast forward nine months and the landscape of the sports world has completely changed. And one of the things that I've always liked so much about Minor League Baseball is the fan experience where it's very unique that the game on the field may not actually be the number one thing that the fans care about. Of course, we always want to root for a winner, but there's something special that minor league baseball does to engage fans. So, let's start with this. I'm curious on what your fan engagement mindset is right now.
Jeff Lantz: (02:28)
Well, yeah like you said, most people when they come to my baseball games, I always tell people when the fans are leaving the stadium, if you pulled a hundred of them, as they're walking out of the gates and said, who won tonight? Probably 60 to 70% of them could tell you who won, but then if you ask them what the score was, probably 90% wouldn't have any idea what the score was. Then you asked them, did you have a good time? And they're like, Oh, absolutely. So, we're trying to engage fans and make it so that everybody that goes to the ballpark has a good time, whether it's our baseball fan or not. That's the most important thing to us and it keeps people coming back. It's obviously very important for us to have clean, safe ballparks where people can let their kids roam around and not have to worry about them.
Jeff Lantz: (03:18)
That's always been an important thing for us now, obviously, like you said, with the last few months here, it's been a little touch and go obviously with coronavirus and everything. I think our teams are doing a really nice job of finding ways to stay engaged with our fans. Whether it's offering ballpark food as a carry-out option from the ballpark, or our team out in Eugene, Oregon organized a big PPE mask drive for hospital workers and first responders, things and people of that nature. So our teams are doing all kinds of fundraisers around the country, raising money. We're doing a Feeding America drive where if people donate money our teams will donate tickets to first responders and frontline workers that are battling coronavirus. So, our teams are doing everything they can to stay involved and stay in the public guide during what should be the baseball season.
Rob Cressy: (04:27)
How important is digital to the fan engagement experience because if there's not currently games going on at the moment, or if there's going to be fewer fans in the stands, I would have to imagine that the communication digitally is so important. So, these teams now actually need to elevate their game on the ongoing communication basis with their audience.
Jeff Lantz: (04:52)
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, whether it's an email blast, or your ticket, purchasers season ticket holders, everybody like that obviously social media has been one of the greatest things that have ever come along for Minor League Baseball team because due to the limited advertising budgets and things of that nature, social media has just been a godsend for our teams to promote themselves. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, all of that, most of our teams are on all of those platforms. So, getting the message out that, Hey, you can come and get the snake tail ale that the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers serve at the bar. That's a great thing for them to be able to promote and sell. Even though they can't have ball games, they can still make some money on concessions and beer sales.
Rob Cressy: (05:45)
So, sports as a whole is such a part of the fabric of society. I think one of the biggest challenges for many people, myself included, is I miss sports. I missed the conversation, but more importantly, I miss the community. I miss being part of it. And for minor league teams, they're a very community based because it's a very local thing where they have the ability to speak directly to their target audience on an everyday basis. So, what can minor league teams do and what can communities do to support their minor league teams? Because there's the whole mindset of we're all in this together and minor league baseball teams like small businesses, everybody is having to find a way to make things better, but I believe there's a big opportunity for us as fans to be leaders of the communities and to help these teams.
Jeff Lantz: (06:38)
Yeah. The term I've heard a couple of times that I really like is baseball teams are the front porch of their community. That's where the people go to sit out front and, and talk to their friends and visit, and chat, and talk about life with them. And unfortunately right now, obviously we can't. They can't gather in that way at the ballpark, but I've read, I think it was maybe in Omaha was having fireworks nights, even with no game. And then people drive up to park in the parking lot and can watch the fireworks that should have been shot that night after the Friday night game. Things like that. I don't know how they came up with the number, but they thought there were about 30,000 people around the ballpark, whether they were in the parking lots or across the road, wherever stopped, and watching the fireworks show that the storm chasers put on. I think fans can support the minor league teams by if your local team is offering take out food from the ballpark, whether its hot dogs or corn dogs or whatever the kids like to eat at that specific ballpark. If your team is offering concessions, they could use the support, go over there and do some takeout one night. Have a ballpark meal and sit outside the ballpark and eat it, and it'd be kind of like you're at the game, but there's no game going on. I'm sure some teams may even open the gates and let you go in and sit in your seats and watch and eat your hot dog if you want it doesn't hurt to ask. I bet they would let you. So it's pretty, our teams are open to pretty much everything.
Rob Cressy: (08:29)
I think you really boiled that down to the way it makes you feel as a fan and the connection that happens between the team and the fans because that's what we're really missing, is that feeling. Because so often we're in this Groundhog day scenario for many of us working from home where we want these other things, but it's day after day, and I can really boil this down to the ability to build a relationship. So, the next question I'm going to have is how can this be an opportunity to make things better? And one thing on my end is to build more relationships because we're going to remember the teams and brands that go above and beyond to try and make our lives and experiences better, whether there are games going on or not. I love the example of the fireworks night because it's something that you're doing for the community. And so often I know in my marketing mindsets, the ability to give selflessly without any expectation of return. I'm a big karma guy. So, alright, if we put good out good will come in. The challenge of course, being right now, we don't know when that good is going to come in. You gotta start making deposits in that good bank and continuing to do it because your fans will remember it.
Jeff Lantz: (09:49)
Yeah. I think a lot of our teams have in some way, shape or form had some kind of activity that was created with the community first mindset. And, whether it's the Modesto team, helping their game-day employees, land jobs with a local concession, or a grocery chain, they didn't have to bend over backward for those people that were not getting a paycheck from the ballpark, but they did. They worked with one of their partners that I think it's called Save Mart and said, Hey, we have these people that are counting on this kind of income from working our games, and they're not going to have that income this summer for the foreseeable future, is there anything we could do for these people? And the grocery store chains were dying for people to come and work for them. They were swamped obviously. So, they have done a deal and it's a great community story. That the team is helping its employees, that isn’t going to have revenue from the team. Now, they found another role for them where they can make some money. So, the stories like that are countless, our clubs are just doing stuff all across the country and similar to that.
Rob Cressy: (11:08)
I think with this if we're going to talk about a listener right now who maybe they don't work for a professional sports team, but I believe this applies to everyone. And the more that you can think about others instead of yourself, on a marketing basis, on a fan engagement basis, because that's really where the details are going to be coming in. Because once again, it's going to stack on top of everything else there, and it's going to be the gift that keeps on giving because when you do something good for someone in your community, guess what? They also have the ability, because for any of us who have ever received something good from someone, you know what it does is? it gives us to say, wow, Jeff was really awesome to me today. Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to go out and do something good for someone else. And something like this is a very good business fundamental that it's unfortunate that sometimes events like go on right now, have to bring this out for us. But guess what? Now that it is, it's the opportunity for each of us to become better people, and in the process, be better in our businesses.
Jeff Lantz (12:18)
Absolutely. I'm with you on the karma. If everybody does something nice for somebody else everybody's going to gain from it, right? I'm always a big believer that in Minor League Baseball, if you see somebody, you see a kid that if a player threw a ball up into the seats and the little seven years old got it. And his five-year-old buddy didn't get it. And he's bawling his eyes out. You'll get that kid a used ball out of the clubhouse and take it over there and make his day. And that kid would want to come back to baseball games forever. He'll remember that forever. Things like that. I was at a game and where was I? Burlington, Vermont. And this kid was walking in front of his mom and kind of cut her off and she spilled her Coke. And it was gone, it was all over the floor and she was all bent out of shape. And 30 seconds later Vermont Lake monsters employee came over with another Coke and just gave it to her and people remember that kind of stuff. And that's what minor league baseball is all about. I don't think there's ever been a minor league mascot that turned down a kid for an autograph or a picture, and those are the pictures that people keep and they put in a little frame and that kid's bedroom. And that's something that they'll always remember.
Rob Cressy: (13:52)
And one thing in terms of an action item that someone can do is I actually recommend setting aside a specific amount of time, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe an hour, and actually brainstorm and write down some ideas of things that you can do that can add more value to others, to add more to your community, to be better at the digital engagement side of things. Because so often we may think about these things every now and then, but even as you're sharing these various examples with me in terms of the mascot or giving the balls, there's just so many opportunities. If everybody took the ethos of Minor League Baseball and how you engage fans, because right away, I'm like, well, why wouldn't minor league teams immediately have a give a ball to a kid day, night, something? Obviously we're going to stay safe and do things within regulations right there.
But it'd be a very simple gesture where sometimes the value you deliver can be way higher than what it actually cost you. So a used baseball, whatever might cost a dollar or a little bit less there, but imagine a parent being able to bring his kid to the parking lot, outside the stadium, and there's the mascot and everyone's sitting there and maybe they're throwing batting practice. Maybe they're taking a picture. Maybe they're just giving them a ball right there. All of a sudden, the goodwill and equity that you build is just so much greater. But, I think the key is you need to be intentional about this, that you can't just wait and hope that it's going to pop up. That if you said, all right, team, let's sit here and let's start writing some of these things down. Then once you've done that, you're one step closer to saying, all right, now that we've created this list, what are our top five, top 10 best ones. All right, now, how can we execute one of these different things and turn this into a very systematic process side of things, because what minor league baseball does is as amazing as you are. It can be very formulaic if you want to create that formula.
Jeff Lantz: (15:52)
Yeah. Yeah. I agree. I mean, Minor League Baseball employees are some of the most creative people in sports and there's a constant flow of ideas coming through. Even myself, just sitting here at home this morning was talking to a guy about, let's do a promotion across all of Minor League Baseball where we opened the stadiums and fans can come out and play catch on the field for a two hour window. That kind of stuff in these times where you can't really do anything fun that you're used to doing, whether it's going to monthly games or, going to the park and playing basketball or whatever it might be. You can't do that stuff, but hey, if there's an opportunity to go play catch at the local minor league stadium on the field for 20 minutes with your dad or your mom or whomever, I think that's a great idea. And I think those are the kinds of things that our teams are trying to find and trying to come up with to create that engagement with fans and keep them top of mind.
Rob Cressy: (17:02)
I'm curious how you can set expectations for fans who eventually will be attending games, because things are going to be a little bit different and we're used to things a certain way, and guess what? It's not going to be perfect. At times it might be a little bit clunky. Everything's not going to go well, but I always believe that communication is such an important thing. This is obviously why we talked about how the digital side and technology can come in here, but what can be done to better set the expectations for the fans who are attending the game to give them the best experience?
Jeff Lantz: (17:36)
Yeah. I think the Charleston RiverDogs last week sent out a COVID-19 plan for their ballpark, for reopening their ballpark. I think you'll see the majority of our teams doing something similar where it's gonna say, hey, if you're in a concession line, you're going to have to be three feet apart and we're going to have designated areas. If the line gets too long, you're just gonna have to come back later. But you got to understand that it's for everybody's safety, certain ways in and around the concourse. Just like when you're driving down the road, you drive down the right side of the street. I think that's going to be more of a thing in, in ballparks and stadiums, is if you need to go around to that section, you've got to stay on this side of the concourse. The vendors that are going around selling food, I think that's gonna be probably more popular than trying to get people to stand in line. I think you'll see a lot more vendors. You don't necessarily see a ton of vendors in the Minor Leagues, just because there aren't as many fans as Major League games or NBA or NFL or whatever.
But, I think the more you can keep people in their seats and with their group and have food brought to them. I think you'll find a lot of teams using the apps for people to order food and remain in their seats. There's going to be a ton of changes. I think you'll see a lot of ball clubs going cashless as well. I know that Tampa Bay rays have done that here and found some success with that in their ballparks. So, tons of things like that. There'll be a lot of changes I think, but I think it's all with the safety of the fans in mind.
Rob Cressy : (19:29)
And obviously this is one of the areas in which FanFood excels, because what do they do? FanFood offers a cashless system so that you can watch more of the game and we can be safer at the same time. The last thing that I want to add to this is so often in communication in fan engagement. There is a silent majority in a vocal minority. So, I want to make sure to reiterate this because when putting out this digital communication to set expectations for fan engagement, no matter what you do in terms of the listener right now, don't say, Oh, this isn't working because people didn't respond back to me or people didn't listen. People do. The key to engagement is you have to first be willing to throw it out there, and from there, know that most people probably saw it but they're not going to say anything.
So do not gauge your success only on the engagement rate, because guess what? The reason I asked the question about the fan expectations is that you're likely to get a stronger minority who's a little bit more vocal about the things that aren't working, but guess what? There's an overwhelming majority who are happy with things. So often if we look at our own consumption in life, am I going and writing on Amazon when I have a good experience? Traditionally, no, but guess what? If you look on there, there's always that one-star review where someone just spits and straight fire, and you're like, Whoa, wait a second. I want to make sure that we set the proper expectations on our own communication, knowing that what we have to do is lead the way, put it out there and from there, be cool with what happens.
Jeff Lantz: (21:11)
Yeah, I agree. As you said, it's the vocal minority that usually makes a big splash or it makes the waves and makes the comments that everybody wants to pay attention to. I think it's important not to overreact to give 5 negative comments on a tweet when 10,000 people probably saw it and didn't say anything because they understand why you're doing it and the reason for doing it, and that the people that are going to complain about it, you're not going to make them happy probably anyways. So, you just kind of have to go with it, I guess. I hate seeing negative comments on tweets and things of that nature, but I think everybody understands that sometimes the trolls come out and want to nitpick and rip you for one thing or another. But, I think it's important that as long as you're getting the information out to people that are always the safest play. Get them the information in advance. And don't worry about a handful of naysayers because they were going to poke holes in it, no matter what it said.
Rob Cressy: (22:24)
As a call to action of something that all of us can do is be someone to give that positive feedback out there. Because remember the karma, if you put good out, good's going to come back in. These teams need it. The social media managers need it, everybody in his organization. Because the way it makes us feel, sometimes just one positive comment about the way the mascot gave your son a ball when there weren’t games going on and how that made him feel, guess what? Those things fuel us so much more. We all have the ability to, in a very simple micro way, just offer up some praise. Whether it's to a minor league team, or maybe it's just a local establishment in your community or someone that you see often just show them some love, because guess what? That's what we need more of out there. That's how things are going to be turning for the better. So, Jeff, I really enjoyed this conversation. Where can everybody connect with you?
Jeff Lantz: (23:21)
Well, we are at MILB.com. You can find us on Twitter at @MILB same with Instagram and Snapchat. So we keep it simple. Everything is the same at MILB and MILB.com. And we hope everybody can get out to a ballpark later this summer.
Rob Cressy: (23:39)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. What I would like to know is, has there been one brand that has done something above and beyond in the last few months that made you feel some sort of way, in a good way? If so, I would love to hear who that was or sort of what the situation was. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter at @FanFoodondemand on Instagram, at @FanFoodapp, or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy. And before we go, there's one other thing that I would like to add. We get a ton of positive feedback about the show, and one thing that would really help us is if you enjoy listening to the GameDay Playbook. Jump on iTunes, give us a rating and review and subscribe to the show because what it does is it helps others find the show so that we can help deliver more value to them. We would really appreciate it. I really appreciate it, and guess what? If you show us some love on a review, I will give you a shout out on the show.