Matt DeMargel — head of marketing (2001-2011) for the Durham Bulls — coordinates media relations, promotions, community outreach, and game entertainment for the celebrated baseball team in Durham, NC.
Last week, I spoke with Matt at his DBAP office about how the team promotes games, uses social media, connects with fans in the off-season, and creates a family entertainment experience — what he compared to “Durham’s own little DisneyWorld.” He also shared some terrific advice about how students can break into sports marketing.
Protecting the Brand: Family Entertainment
Matt described his job as multi-faceted:
“I handle the PR for the team, game operations, giveaways, community relations efforts, and of course, the marketing. But I’m responsible in many ways for the Durham Bulls’ brand, making sure that we’re not only creating but protecting what the brand is — family-friendly entertainment. … My job is to continue to grow that brand and to use the proper mediums to get that message out.”
I asked how they segment the customer base. Matt said they haven’t taken a full “ball park census” in a few years, but the club knows that most fans come from Wake County, including a lot of young families. They tend to be fairly well educated.
Families are the team’s “bread and butter.” They’re usually “making a night out at the ball park. It doesn’t have to be just about watching a baseball game.” Matt continued:
“We’ve got a whole big playground called Wool E.’s World, where kids will go and play. The ball park is intimate enough where the parents feel okay as their kids roam around and have a good time. And then, of course, we’ve got mascots here that they can visit and play with. [There are post-game fireworks on Fridays.] Come Sundays, they get to run around the bases after the game.
We try and fill the night with activities and almost make it like Durham’s own little DisneyWorld. That’s really what we go for, and that’s the market we’ve been able to attract. [They can] have a nice night out with the family but not have to break the bank.”
I remarked that a Durham Bulls’ game feels like a more intimate experience than a major league game. Matt agreed, saying the 10,000-seat stadium was intentionally designed with a “close seating bowl” that puts spectators near the action. He said, “Fans react to that. I feel like I can just reach out and touch Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford. Now I flip on the television and these guys are all stars.”
I asked about the craziest promo he’s ever done or seen. He mentioned a new event, where a trained monkey herds sheep while riding a dog in the outfield. He acknowledged that minor league baseball is known for wacky promotions but noted, “We try to deliver more ‘consistent’ than ‘crazy.’”
Using Social Media to Connect with Fans
The team’s Facebook page just crossed 7,000 fans (11th largest among nearly 200 minor league teams), and their @DurhamBulls Twitter feed has more than 2,400 followers. The team also continues to use Bronto email marketing to reach fans on a regular basis, with its conversion-tracking analytics.
Because social media programs tend to consume time, rather than money, I asked Matt how the team divides the workload. He’s in charge of the Facebook page and the DBulls.com website. Multimedia coordinator John Blotzer handles YouTube updates, since he’s working with the video content already.
“At the moment, our general manager handles our Twitter account because Twitter in a lot of ways is about being interested in the person who’s got something to say. From our office, it should be our general manager if you’re looking for that ‘behind-the-scenes’ stuff. It’s not so much about information as it is about candid chit-chat…because it’s so brief at 140 characters.”
The social media marketing team meets monthly to coordinate things — discussing strategy and identifying potential cross-promotions.
I asked if he had a sense of a revenue impact from their social media program. Matt said it’s not something they can attribute directly. Attendance this season has been strong, but “it’s always a challenge to figure out exactly what is drawing people to the ball park. … We know that fireworks on Fridays are always going to be wildly popular.” Instead, it’s more about the combination of efforts.
Focusing on Group Sales for Predictable Revenues
I observed that he’s selling a “perishable” product — 10,000 seats per game. I asked how the Bulls might use marketing to boost last-minute attendance at a potentially undersold game.
“There’s just a lot more benefit to knowing ahead of time who’s going to be at the game. It helps for staffing, general budgeting, and expectations. And obviously, it’s a nice shield against the weather.”
Picnics and corporate outings are an important business for the Durham Bulls and for modern minor league baseball in general. Since Matt started with the team nine years ago, the stadium has expanded from two private picnic areas to seven picnic areas.
They also now sell ‘virtual’ picnic packages, where groups pre-order food combos and then sit together in the regular stands. This expanded the park’s picnic capacity from less than 400 seats per game to a nearly unlimited inventory of “picnic” seats.
To promote pre-sales, group and picnic tickets are available before regular individual tickets go on sale each season, and the team has business development coordinators who focus on securing advance block sales. Matt noted he can promote minor league games as a nice alternative to doing corporate events at a local park, in that Bulls games come with onsite food and built-in entertainment.
Fan Outreach Continues During the Off-Season
Since baseball isn’t year-round, I asked Matt what they do to engage fans in the off-season. They have a few events in the park — including Duke baseball games and the Bulls’ National Anthem Auditions — but they primarily focus on merchandise and outreach in the community. The club also tried a new Valentine’s Day promotion this year, when they sold “Wool E. Grams.” Their mascot delivered flowers and a pair of opening-day tickets to 20 recipients in the Triangle.
Matt praised the benefits of having a full-time mascot:
“He’s out in the market all the time and that’s year round. [A lot of fall and winter promotions] are things we do outside of the stadiums, where Wool E. Bull is going to the different events and reminding people that that baseball season is just around the corner.”
Advice About Getting into Sports Marketing
I’ve heard sports marketing can be a tough industry to get into. I asked Matt about his advice for people who want to break into the field. Focusing on his career experience in minor league baseball, he said:
“Getting started, I recommend to young people that you take whatever position you can get. It doesn’t have to be what you do forever. It’s difficult because of the inverse relationship between what people want to do and how many positions there are.”
He said everyone wants to become the general manager or the PR director. But if you want to do PR or marketing in minor league baseball, there are only a few hundred of those positions in the entire country. However, it’s not impossible:
“Look at smaller teams that don’t get as much attention as the Durham Bulls. I mean, obviously, not everybody had a hit movie made about them. [You can focus on] smaller teams that don’t get nearly as many applications. [It] makes good sense to start there.”
It’s easier to move up once you have your foot in the door. Low pay leads to high turnover at lower-level “front office” positions. For instance, if you start as a ticket seller and make it known that you’re interested in PR, you’re already on the inside when the PR person leaves in a few years. Matt started in game entertainment and jumped to PR after he moved to California and a position opened up.
I observed that his career had taken him from Missouri to Colorado to California to North Carolina. He confirmed that geographic flexibility is important:
“[Some students say], ‘I wanna stay close to here. I don’t wanna leave North Carolina.’ It’s your life, but keep in mind you just shrunk your pool from 187 minor league teams to about 12. … Once you get yourself established, when you start to make connections, it’s not an issue to get where you want to be. But it’s more difficult to start out that way.”
Thanks for sharing your behind-the-scenes experience and advice, Matt! I’m looking forward to going to my next home game in Durham — and I have a better appreciation for the marketing that filled the stadium.
This is the fifth in my new series of interviews with marketing experts and business leaders in North Carolina and beyond. If you know someone I should speak with, let me know and I’ll try to feature them in a future profile.
What’s your favorite memory from minor league baseball?
Credits: Headshot courtesy of Matt DeMargel. DBAP photo by Karl Sakas.