Both the Kalamazoo Growlers and the Battle Creek Bombers kicked off their seasons this week, and to get fans in seats, both teams are using promotions like fireworks, giveaways, even events like “Redneck Night” at the park. The Bombers, though, are trying out a questionably delicious culinary strategy, too.
There’s a very delicate balance when it comes to marketing a minor league baseball team. The relaxed atmosphere of a game appeals to a lot of people. But that also means teams have to cater to all kinds.
“What a challenge for sports marketers,” says John Weitzel, a sports marketing professor at Western Michigan University. "Because you’ve got the baseball purists. The kids. You have millennials, who have a whole different set of values and beliefs. All these different groups in the stands enjoying the game for what it is. But they’re all enjoying it differently."
So how do you make sure that all of those different groups enjoy the game? The first step is obviously to field good players, but a team needs more. When Tony Iovieno took over as general manager for the Battle Creek Bombers two years ago, the task was an especially tall order.
"When I came here, our concessions were kind of last in the league when it comes to revenue and per cap, which is how much people want to spend when they’re here," he admits.
To come up with ideas, Iovieno and his front office had huge brainstorming sessions, just throwing up anything on to a board. To fix the concession problem, they conceived of a unique solution: the Twinkie Dog. It’s a Twinkie cut in two, with a hot dog in the middle and whipped cream on top.
The next year, it was the L’Eggo my Eggo burger: a double cheeseburger with Eggo waffles as buns. Iovieno admits they’re weird, but they’re unique, and that brings in fans. They also brought the team national attention from places like MLB.com and Good Morning America.
"So sometimes, it's more about headlines and generating some buzz than taste," he says. "Personally, the L’eggo my Eggo burger was really good, I thought! And I know the Poptarko may not look that good, but it’s actually pretty good!"
You’re probably asking yourself what is a Poptarko. That’s this year’s treat.
The workers inside the tiny concession stand at the Bombers' stadium explain the recipe for the concoction. They start by wrapping a hard shell taco inside a soft shell taco. Then add some pulled pork, then cheese, bacon bits, and barbecue sauce. Finally, a cinnamon sugar Pop-Tart, split in two, plopped on top.
It’s not exactly gourmet food, but that’s not the point. Other baseball teams have created similar promotions: a pulled pork parfait, a flight of bacon, even a three pound banana split.
But what may set the Poptarko apart is how it ties in to the team and city around it. Battle Creek is Cereal City -- Kellogg’s is here, and Kellogg’s makes Pop Tarts. It makes sense.
"It allows the sponsor and team together to connect with the audience," says Weitzel. "So it’s kind of good for everybody. It’s not for everybody, as far as there’s not everybody in the stands who’s going to actually get a Poptarko. But the idea, the fact they have it, is part of the overall branding message out there.”
That connection is why Lorna Desha, out at a Bombers' game with her two kids, decided to dive in and buy not one, but two.
“Oh, as soon as I saw the schedule and it said 'Buy one get one free Poptarko,' I knew that I had to have one. Or two!" she says.
She says it’s surprisingly pretty good – sweet and salty and crunchy all at once. But more importantly, it's local.
"Battle Creek, Kellogg's Cereal, Poptarts," she explains. "You got to do it while you're in Battle Creek!"
Foods like the Poptarko have actually made a decent impact for the Bombers. The year they premiered the Twinkie Dog, they moved up to 12th out of 16 teams in concession sales. Now, they’re up even higher.
But Bombers GM Ioveno says he knows weird food isn’t the only solution to put more fans in the seats. He points to more toned-down programs, like an education day, that brought in the Bombers’ second-biggest crowd last year. It’s that kind of varied approach, he says – weird food and education, fireworks and a winning team – that will keep the Bombers around.