Rock Cats Bucking Recession By Scoring More Sponsors, Fans

By Becky Bergman – Special to the Hartford Business Journal

With opening day just round the corner, the New Britain Rock Cats are building on their successful grassroots marketing strategy by targeting budget-conscious fans seeking cheaper tickets, less expensive concessions and a positive family experience.

The Rock Cats — the Double A minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins — also continues to draw corporate sponsors by promoting customized advertising packages, company events and networking opportunities, according to John Willi, the team’s vice president and general manager.

Despite a rocky economy and battered consumer confidence, both sponsorship sales and fan attendance are up, according to team officials.

The New Britain Rock Cats drew an average 5,556 fans per game in 2009 and sold out 22 times, fully a third of their 66 regular season home games — five games were rained out. Attendance jumped 5 percent last year compared to 2008 and team officials expect a similar bump in 2010.

The largest single game attendance was 8,380 on Aug. 14. That’s a feat in a stadium that seats 6,100 fans.

In fact, last year 374,773 people took in a Rock Cats game, making the team the leading draw among sporting events in Connecticut — bigger than Wolf Pack hockey, UConn football or UConn basketball.

“Our fans are looking to stretch their entertainment dollar,” said Willi. “They want to have a fun time without breaking the bank.”

For example, a family of four could expect to spend about $400 for parking, tickets, food and souvenirs at a major league ballpark, compared to $100 for the same thing at New Britain Stadium, said Willi.

Enhancing promotional programs has been a powerful sales tool, team officials said.

About 100 companies participate in some form of advertising with the Rock Cats, whether it’s putting their name on an outfield sign, tagging along on one of the team’s community events or engaging face-to-face with fans at New Britain Stadium.

Willi said he believes a faltering economy is having a reverse effect on sponsorship spending. He expects the Rock Cats to maintain or even slightly increase its sponsorship revenue in 2010.

Sponsorship sales represent about a third of the team’s revenue, according to Willi.

If the Rock Cats continue to grow as Willi predicts, they’ll be bucking the trend on sports marketing deals. Nationwide, corporate spending on sports skyrocketed more than 106 percent since 1999, to an estimated $11.4 billion in 2008.

But in 2009, that figure was expected to inch up a mere 1.8 percent, the slowest rate in seven years and the second-slowest rate in more than two decades, according to IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based trade publication for the corporate sponsorship industry.

In a recent survey, IEG found 60 percent of sports sponsors planned to either maintain or decrease spending in 2009. Figures for 2010 are not available.

The survey also found that 71 percent of the companies surveyed invest in sports sponsorships to increase brand loyalty; 67 percent do it to create awareness and visibility about their service or product; 58 percent to change or reinforce its image and 39 percent to drive retail traffic.

“We’re different than a television or radio program because we don’t just toss a rate card at our companies,” said Willi. “Whether they want to market to the fans through an outfield sign or interact with them one-on-one at an event, we can offer that.”

The team offers a bevy of promotional events and activities geared toward drawing in fans and sponsorship dollars.

The team hosts networking sessions for its corporate sponsors and holds speaker events for various industries, including education and healthcare. In particular, the team will focus on growing its social media program this year.

The team offers a young professionals deal that includes 10 tickets for $100, events that cater to the 40-under-40 sector and skybox promotions that allow small businesses to split packages.

The team, which traded hands in 1998 for $6.5 million, throws out its first pitch April 8.