Each season, Major League Baseball teams and fans anticipate Opening Day with the same fervor as kids on Christmas Eve awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. But in 2002, while most teams dreamed of a World Series, the Minnesota Twins were not even assured of playing a game.MLB commissioner Bud Selig, citing league-wide financial concerns, particularly for small-market clubs, was determined to eliminate two teams before the start of the season: the Twins and the Montreal Expos.
Despite a very competitive 2001 season, in which the team competed for a division title, the Twins' failure to generate revenue on par with other teams rendered them a strong target for being dissolved. Furthermore, the lease on the team's home stadium, the Metrodome, runs out after this season, so the Twins literally don't have a home for 2003. Beyond that, the club's parking and concession intake is among the league's lowest.
"We've left ourselves vulnerable to contraction,
admits Twins SVP of business affairs Dave St. Peter. "The team and the community have been unable to come together and develop a workable game plan for a new ballpark. While other cities and teams have worked together to create new stadiums, a solution has eluded us."
This is critical, as new ballparks bring a financial windfall from luxury suites, sponsorships, and the like. They also, if for no other reason than the novelty of having a new stadium, renew a city's enthusiasm for the team for at least a few years. "We need a new ballpark in order to be viable,
admits St. Peter. Of course, without a new owner, the prospects are slim. But, until a realistic stadium plan is devised, no one will seriously consider buying the team.
It is under this ominous cloud that the Twins play ball. With contraction a very real possibility, someone had to rally fans to put pressure on the proper authorities to ensure the Twins would play in 2002. Simultaneously, St. Peter's staff had to focus on bringing fans to games, selling merchandise, and gaining corporate support.
Keeping the Twins in Minnesota required outside intervention. Enter Paul Ridgeway, diehard Twins fan and president of special-events marketing company Ridgeway International. Of his own accord, he hoped to organize Minnesotans as they sought court action forcing MLB to let the Twins play this season.
Meanwhile, St. Peter had to deal with the bottom line and get fans excited.
As recently as the early '90s, the club had household names like Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, on-field all-stars who gave the team an identity that extended well beyond the confines of the Metrodome. Current fans had no such icons with which to identify. One way or the other, the players had to become an integral part of Minnesota's baseball psyche.
Led by St. Peter, and with some aid from Hunt Adkins, a Minneapolis-based advertising/communications firm that often works with the club, the Twins launched a "Get to Know 'Em
campaign before the 2001 season.
This was a somewhat risky proposition inasmuch as the Twins had a roster of unknowns.
The team's winter caravan visited over 50 communities throughout the area. It targeted everyone from kids to nursing-home patients, and the players played an important and enthusiastic role. Coupled with the Twins' 18-6 start in 2001, the "Get to Know 'Em
drive was a smashing success, and would become the cornerstone for the 2002 PR push.
With the team's strong showing in 2001, the players' notoriety soared.
The connection fans now had with players like first baseman Doug Meintkiewicz, pitcher Brad Radke, and outfielder Torii Hunter would be a focal point for the 2002 "Get to Know 'Em
drive, which covered 14,000 miles throughout the upper Midwest. "We truly believe,
says St. Peter, "that this grassroots initiative - geared at fans throughout our marketing region - was critical to launching our 2002 campaign. It reminded fans that we were still in business, and it allowed us to thank them for sticking with us."
Meanwhile, Ridgeway set out to prove that fans cared. "The area has always supported the Twins,
contends Ridgeway. "They just haven't been as consistent as they should."
Ridgeway traveled throughout the region in search of signatures supporting the Twins. In a span of two weeks, over 181,000 people throughout Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Iowa signed their names in a show of unity.
These signed petitions, presented to both Selig and the courts, played a role in subsequent legislative decisions.
In late 2001, Hennipen County district judge Harold Crump ruled that the Twins must be allowed to play in 2002 as scheduled. On January 23, 2002, MLB appealed that decision. But on February 4, the State Supreme Court refused to hear MLB's argument, thus saving the Twins' 2002 season.
The home opener on April 12 was a sellout, the first since 1993. St.
Peter estimates that total 2002 attendance will exceed two million. TV ratings so far in 2002 are up 45% from last year, and corporate sponsorship is up 30%.
The enormous media coverage, both local and national, often questioned how a team so steeped in tradition could even be considered for elimination.
Such sentiments empowered the Twins to forge ahead.
Alabama businessman Donald Watkins has expressed interest in buying the Twins. The city of St. Paul has aggressively begun discussions for building a new stadium. The team is also prepared to launch Victory Sports I, its own regional sports television network. ("We feel this can be a critical source of revenue and a key component to keeping the team here and competitive for years to come,
says St. Peter). Unfortunately, nothing is imminent, and "contraction
will be a buzzword again after the season ends.
The 2002 Twins may very well earn a post-season banner for the first time since 1991. However, that banner may fly in some other city - if at all - in 2003.