A Virtual Opening Night: How Minor League Baseball Pivoted

stock_baseball-fieldStadiums are locked down, fields are empty and only half of the major sporting events originally scheduled for 2020 are slated to take place this year. Yep, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it a bleak time to be a sports fan. But Minor League Baseball’s (MiLB) appetite for innovation revived the fervor of sports fandom on April 9, if only for a day. Determined to give its passionate fan base a chance to celebrate Opening Night, the league delivered a social media-led #MiLBAtHomeOpener campaign spanning nine “innings” of interactive engagements, partner integrations, a microsite and even a digital fireworks show to cap off the day-long slate of activities. And that’s only a glance at the lineup.

“We wanted to lean into the fact that MiLB [teams] in our communities are often called the ‘front porches’ of their community,” says Cory Bernstine, director-marketing & business strategy at MiLB. “With social distancing and no actual games, we asked ourselves the question, is there a way to still provide and bottle and capture that MiLB fun, and reimagine what that looks like while also leaning into what Minor League Baseball is known for? And so that was the genesis for the #MiLBAtHomeOpener campaign.”

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MiLB only had a matter of days to pivot into digital, making the campaign an all-hands-on-deck effort. And we mean all hands, including creative services, social media, communications, partnership marketing, business development, community engagement, digital licensing—you name it, and the department likely had a hand in developing the virtual experience. Tasks ranged from integrating brand partners to developing #MiLBAtHomeOpener-branded social media templates for all 160 MiLB teams. “We pulled this off in what seemed like two years crunched into about 72 hours, but I think the beautiful part of that exercise was it forced us to be innovative,” says Bernstine.



Starting at 10 a.m. Eastern, innings began at the top of the hour, each with its own slate of built-in digital activities. The second inning, dubbed the MiLB Kids Zone featuring Guardian Protection, for instance, was all about family-friendly activities. That included “in-game” promotions, like a cup shuffle where fans had to guess which cup a ball was under, printable coloring book pages with team logos, and a mascot photo interactive.

Additional activities included everything from an MiLB apparel hour featuring exclusive giveaways to MiLB team community spotlights to a “Season Rewind” showcasing top highlights from the 2019 season on Facebook and YouTube to Instagram Live sessions with some members of the MiLB editorial team who host the league’s podcast. And all of it was built with the fan experience in mind.



Getting buy-in from brand partners on a Virtual Opening Night experience versus a physical one may sound like a tall order, but MiLB secured a range of sponsors who were seamlessly integrated into, and supportive of, the #MiLBAtHomeOpener campaign. The third inning, called the MiLB Road to the Show, for example, was a storytelling initiative sponsored by Nationwide, with content featuring players making their way up to the big leagues. In the fourth inning, the MiLB Lunch Bites hour, Stouffer’s shared fun ballpark recipes that fans could download and make at home, while Applegate created a call-to-action, asking consumers about their favorite hotdog topping in hopes of sparking some debate.

During the seventh inning stretch and apparel hour, power equipment company Echo leaned into its participation in the MiLB’s Hispanic fan engagement program, Copa de la Diversion, showcasing culturally relevant apparel that teams have been wearing to engage with their Hispanic communities. In the eighth inning, Uncle Ray’s created a digital snack break, challenging fans to dream up their own potato chip flavor on Twitter. Wrapping up the “game” in the ninth inning was Baseball America, which offered the 2019 Season Rewind and post-game virtual fireworks show.

“It was very much a collaborative process with our partners,” Bernstine says. “They were eager to be engaged. I think it speaks to a broader strategy and collaboration mindset of, during these times, how can we think differently about our frameworks? And I must say that they were very collaborative and supportive.”




The #MiLBAtHomeOpener program required effort and endorsement from a variety of parties, which MiLB ultimately secured to the tune of more than four million social impressions, a 333-percent increase in engagements on Twitter versus Opening Night 2019 and the No. 2 trending spot on Twitter for the day. So what are some top tips for other b-to-c marketers looking to pivot into digital? Bernstine has four pointers.

“Think like a fan. For us, it’s to think through the fan lens of what type of content they would want. What do they love about your brand and your product?” says Bernstine. “I think two, to think about the collective ecosystem of your stakeholders. It’s one thing to have baseball, but we’ve got to think about our partners. We have to think about our communities. We have to think about our clubs.

“Three, is just being able to be agile and innovative,” he says. “And four, is being mindful of what your brand stands for and how you can be part of the solution and not be, quote-unquote, ‘tone deaf’ at this point in time. So doing it in an authentic way that’s true to the brand.”



What’s next for MiLB in the era of social distancing? Bernstine says more virtual endeavors will be cropping up thanks to the success of the #MiLBAtHomeOpener.

“It’s opening up a lot of doors for us to think about how we evolve our business, knowing that what was tried and true is great, but asking how can we continue to do things differently.” Home run. 

Featured photo courtesy: iStock/traffic_analyzer

This story appeared in the June 2020 issue
Kait Shea
Posted by Kait Shea

Kait joined EM in 2015 and today enjoys her role as senior editor, digital content. When she’s not in reporter mode, rocking mermaid pants at Comic-Con or running laps at MWC Barcelona, you can find her at home listening to music.
View all articles by Kait Shea →

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