Minnesota Twins president goes to bat for comms

Having spent years in senior-level comms roles prior to ascending to the presidency of the Minnesota Twins in 2002, the team's brand message is constantly top of mind for Dave St. Peter. He spoke with Gideon Fidelzeid prior to the Spong-hosted roundtable about keys to fan engagement beyond wins and losses and the far-reaching and mutual benefits of a stadium-naming partnership.

Gideon Fidelzeid: What happens on the field obviously impacts your brand, but you need to succeed no matter what happens between the lines. How do you keep fans engaged with the team - and, in turn, keep your brand strong - when the team isn't winning so much?

Dave St. Peter: Relationships are huge in this regard - and I mean with everyone from season-ticket holders to corporate partners. We opened Target Field in 2010. Since then, we lost 90 games a season four years in a row, yet we still drew north of 2 million. That is a testament to the relationship we have with our fans.

Of course, the onus is on us to get the product on the field fixed - and we are. We're enjoying our best season in a while this year. We're giving our fans hope and excitement. But the relationships we cultivated when we were struggling on the field will truly pay dividends when we become a contender.

Fidelzeid: A brand’s reputation can certainly be impacted by the other brands it associates with. What do the Twins look for in a brand partner? What do other brands look for in the Twins? 

St. Peter: When we came to Target Field we very deliberately engaged in dialogue with Minnesota legacy companies. We sought organizations that understood what baseball means to the local market. We feel it means as much to Minnesota as these legacy brands do. Target, US Bank, Best Buy, or Mayo Clinic – these are legacy Minnesota brands, much like the Twins are.

Beyond that, we need to find brands that share with us a value system around service and community.

Fidelzeid: Stadium naming rights are among the biggest financial commitments a brand can make in the sports arena. Such accords are also very relevant to the teams involved. How did your partnership with Target materialize? What benefits have the Twins derived from it?

St. Peter: When the new stadium got approved, my boss Jim Pohlad was very reticent to sell naming rights. We really dissected the pros and cons. He was very concerned about the ballpark's brand and how a naming-rights partner can impact it. Ultimately, he gave me a list of three companies he would allow us to talk to.

Target was first. It had the Minnesota legacy we sought. We also liked what it brought to the table in terms of marketing savvy, which we constantly tap into, its relevance with young people, and, perhaps most importantly, its community engagement. 

It also must be noted the commitment Target immediately showed to the project. It went far beyond signing checks. The brand was very engaged with the stadium design. Target took ownership in the facility, as it should have.

Fidelzeid: What benefits do you feel Target derives for having its name on the stadium?

St. Peter: My sense is it saw an opportunity to do something of significant relevance in its hometown. This is a huge global brand, but Minneapolis remains a critical market considering all the people it employs here.

It was also an opportunity to put its name on a truly unique world-class venue. The brand had previously done a naming-rights deal with the Target Center, where the Timberwolves and WNBA Lynx play. I believe the relationship with us is the next evolution of such partnerships.

It's also a powerful engagement mechanism. If you look at the demographics of baseball and compare it with Target's demographics, it's an appealing partnership for both.

Fidelzeid: I've spoken to other brands with naming-rights deals and I get the sense Target's level of involvement, as well as the constant engagement between the two parties involved, is uniquely high in this case.

St. Peter: It is - and that's intentional. When the Twins think of partnerships, transparency and accessibility are major factors in a relationship that works. Of course, because this is a huge commitment for Target it cares deeply about the facility. However, as noted before, this is the brand's second such partnership. Target learned from the first time it did such a deal and we both benefit from that. Too many teams just want the money, but no input from the brand partner. I am fortunate to have an owner who understands that for a partnership such as this to work and last, it must be a two-way street.

Fidelzeid: Any unexpected benefits from the partnership?

St. Peter: I mentioned Target's marketing savvy as a factor that really drew us to them. The investment it made in the stadium is basically an investment in the Twins. As such, we collaborate with them all the time around how we can activate within the facility and better engage in the community together. 

We're currently involved in a master-plan process focused on the long-term development of the stadium. Target is very involved in that. It obviously benefits both brands, but what Target brings to the table in terms of creative marketing ideas is incredibly valuable to the Twins. The partnership that started as a stadium naming-rights deal has given us access to that. Target, in turn, has proved to be a very willing partner in that regard.

Fidelzeid: In a 2013 interview you did with the GMSP Business Show, you said, "The Twins work every single day to find new ways to drive the business objectives of all our corporate partners." Can you offer some recent examples?

St. Peter: Our work with Mayo Clinic is noteworthy in this regard. We had conversations with them before Target Field was a reality. It had always been very quiet when it came to sponsorships, but through hard work and finding common values, we convinced them that the Twins and Target Field were the right platform for them to introduce their brand into the sponsorship world. And now you can see how that has evolved through programs such as Mayo Clinic Square [which launched on June 17].

I take very seriously the role the Twins can play as a conduit to deliver a messaging platform any brand can benefit from - be it radio, TV, social media, or, of course, the ballpark. We're working with US Bank now on some programs involving our players. It need not always be about the stadium. That's not our only powerful platform. The onus is on us to be more flexible and find ways to help brands capitalize on various beneficial possibilities of working with the Twins.

Fidelzeid: Please speak to some of the unique findings your analytics have revealed about what fans want most in terms of their experience.

St. Peter: We have invested a tremendous amount of time and money in studying data about what motivates fans to purchase tickets, particularly packages, beyond wins and losses. From a business perspective, a baseball team obviously wants to sell as many season-ticket packages as it can, but cost is a factor for many fans. So we just came out with a 10-game season-ticket pack that ultimately allows fans to pick the games. That latter part is of particular appeal. This was a clear reaction to feedback from a core group of fans. For previous season-ticket holders, this was a way to keep them. But this is also a solid way to transition single-game purchasers into bigger packages.

As you might expect, a lot of fan feedback centers on stadium offerings. All the food and beverage options are constantly considered based on what patrons desire. We have created numerous student-night packages - a $5 ticket combined with a $1 hot dog - that had brought in upward of 6,000 fans a night to games they would otherwise not attend.

If you go around the Major Leagues, theme nights have risen tremendously as ways to draw fans. At least in the Twins' case, analytics was a huge impetus in many of them. And we don't stop analyzing. We have a team devoted to measuring the ROI on all of our theme nights, as well as the opportunity cost.

Fidelzeid: You have held numerous senior-level comms roles in your 26 years with the Twins before ascending to your current post in 2002. How does that PR background inform what you do as team president?

St. Peter: I tap into those comms lessons every day. All the senior-level communicators on our staff report to me, either directly or, at least, in a dotted line. Kevin Smith oversees corporate communications, Dustin Morse leads baseball communications, and I work with both multiple times a day. Whether it's a potential media-relations issue, a need to engage our players, or opportunities with external partners, I am very much involved.

What is really noteworthy, though, is the fact when I assumed my current role in 2002, only two out of 30 MLB team presidents had a communications or marketing background. Most were lawyers, accountants, or former business heads. Now, out of 30, eight or nine have marcomms backgrounds. The explosion of social media and the ever-increasing understanding inside sports organizations of the importance of crisis communications savvy has led to this.

Staying on this theme, the single most influential sports figure in the last 100 years, to me, was not a player, but former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. He laid the foundation that has allowed the NFL to become the juggernaut it is today. Among many things, he convinced the owners of major-market teams to share TV revenues with smaller-market clubs. The league would not be in the position it is today without that. And he was a PR man. I've always held him to be one of my professional heroes.

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