Baseball team’s primary goal is pleasing fans, sponsors

Someday, new parents may feel the need to consult a lawyer when choosing a name for the baby. For now, consultations with counsel are advisable when naming a baseball team.

Legal as well as public relations considerations are involved in the name or brand the product will bear in the increasingly competitive professional sports market. And in choosing the name for the Eastern League (AA) baseball team that will begin play in Manchester next spring, the organization has been advised to stay away from names already used by other sports franchises or colleges or universities–even by teams in other sports in distant parts of the country.

So possibilities like Blackhawks and Timberwolves were out from the start, along with lesser-known names like the Marauders. New Hampshire, it turns out, already has the Monadnock Marauders, a semi-professional football team in Keene. Even the Black Flies, an annoying insect familiar to New Hampshirites in the late spring and early summer, has been taken as the name of a youth sports team.

All of this is familiar to Shawn Smith, president and general manager of New Hampshire Baseball in Manchester. He was general manager of owner Drew Webber’s other team, the Lowell (Mass.) Spinners when that team came into the NY-Penn (Class-A) League as a Red Sox affiliate in 1997. The name “Spinners” was chosen as a tie-in to the city’s history with textile mills. But some people had other ideas.

“There was an amateur skating club out in Colorado somewhere called the Spinners that threatened to sue us,” Smith said. “Then they said they’d forget about the suit in exchange for money.” The team didn’t pay, and the suit was never filed. But it was an indication of how sensitive an issue the naming of a sports team can be.

The name New Hampshire Baseball had originally put forth, The New Hampshire Primaries, turned out to be a dud. The response from area baseball fans was overwhelmingly negative.

Unsolicited calls and letters opposing the name came pouring into The Union Leader. A poll conducted by WMUR-TV drew some 6,000 responses, with 84 percent sounding the death knell for the Primaries. After a few days, New Hampshire Baseball dropped the name and tossed the ball to the fans. But even the negative reaction to the name indicated that fans in the area already had a lively interest in their new baseball team, Smith said.

“When there’s fan concern and fan support, you’re never disappointed,” he said. Both the name and resulting controversy drew national attention, with coverage on four national television networks and in newspapers as far away as California.

“It really didn’t matter what people think nationally, it met with some resistance at home,” Smith said.

Family entertainment

While the Primaries may have seemed like a natural tie-in to New Hampshire’s pre-eminent political event, the New Hampshire Baseball fan voting process seems nearly as complex and involved as the Iowa Caucuses.

In the first phase, the fans submitted some 2,600 names, reduced to 700 when duplications and names considered unacceptable were eliminated. The second phase involved voting on those entries during the several days they were posted on the team’s Web site. The third and final phase involves choosing the winning name from among the top five vote-getters. One voter in the final phase will be chosen at random as the winner of a trip for two to the Dunedin, Fla., spring training site of the Toronto Blue Jays, the parent club of Manchester’s Eastern League franchise.

Whatever name is chosen and however democratic the process, chances are the choice will not please everyone.

“When we picked our name, some people thought, ‘What kind of name is that?’” said Charlie Eshbach, president and general manager of the Portland (Maine) Seadogs, a highly successful franchise since it entered the Eastern League in 1994.

Shortly after his team’s name was announced, Eshbach recalled, he was listening on his car radio when a caller to a local talk show complained that the only people who would like the Seadogs name and logo would be “kids and women.”

“I was driving along when I heard that and I said, ‘YES!’”

The Manchester club also will be looking to make the team appealing to women and children, as minor league baseball has become increasingly a family entertainment event.

“We’re not marketing this team to baseball fans, we’re marketing it to fans,” said Smith.

Both at the renovated Gill Stadium next year and in the city’s new stadium starting in 2005, the ballclub plans to bring entertainment events to the ballpark that will hold the interest of people not necessarily interested in keeping track of runs, hits and errors.

In Manchester as at other minor league sites, there will be opportunities for businesses to advertise through sponsoring between-innings games and contests, such as the “dizzy bat race,” a “base race” and other events that provide both amusement for the audience and revenue for the team. The organization also plans to bring to the park attractions similar to a petting zoo, pony rides, break-dancers and other acts that have entertained crowds at Lowell’s LeLacheur Park in recent years. The Spinners have yet to make the post-season playoffs in their seven-year history, but nearly every game is a sellout.

“It’s not baseball, it’s entertainment” said owner Drew Weber, who purchased the former New Haven Ravens franchise in the Eastern League and moved it to Manchester earlier this year. “We’re not the only ones who understand that, but we understand it as well as anyone in baseball does.”

Apparently, area fans are eager to be entertained at minor league baseball’s affordable prices. New Hampshire Baseball officially opened for business in Manchester’s Hampshire Plaza on Oct 18. By mid-November, more than 70,000 $4 and $6 tickets had been sold for next season’s 71 home games at Gill Stadium. More than a thousand season tickets were sold and more than two dozen area businesses had approached the team about purchasing luxury suites at that will cost them $26,000 to $30,000 per season when the new stadium opens in 2005.

Meanwhile, the team also is selling space on rotating signs, where corporate sponsors can hang logos and messages. Team officials also will be putting together ticket packages for birthday parties, corporate outings and other events, as well as planning player appearances and baseball clinics for next season.

During the holiday season, the club will be participating in the annual Christmas on Elm Street parade and other civic events and will be active in efforts to raise money for local charities.

The New Hampshire Baseball crew is determined to make a good name for the team, whatever its name might be.

“Marketing 101 is giving the people what they want, not what we want,” Webber said of the naming effort. “If you listen to the fans you will never go wrong.”

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