Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Top Twelve Minor League Media Coverage

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on April 5, 2006.)

As the Red Sox and all that is good in the major leagues – as well as the Yankees and all that is bad – start to work out their spring training kinks in games that actually count, the next great players are doing it in smaller parks and on more buses. Minor league baseball, that great American fringe sports tradition, has started again. Since one of the strongest minor leagues in the country, the Eastern League, has a team in my beloved Granite State, I wanted to take a quick tour of the league, looking at what kind of media love each of the twelve gets.

Some of the results – like the closer a minor league team is to a major league team, the less media attention it gets – are obvious. Others – like at what point teams slip through media attention altogether – are not.

The Eastern League is one of the more venerable minor leagues around, having been founded in 1923. It’s an AA league, and all of its teams are affiliated with clubs in the majors, mostly from the AL and NL East. Hall of fame players that have come out of the Eastern League include Carlton Fisk, Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, Whitey Ford and Wade Boggs’ moustache (which nicely let Wade come along for the ride). Current players Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Roger Clemens (hey, who knows, maybe he is currently playing) are Eastern League alumni too. Young man, if you can play well in this league, you have a chance to be very good, indeed.

As such, it makes sense that it attracts a fair amount of attention from papers and television stations in the areas where they play. This is particularly true of teams – like the New Hampshire Fisher Cats – that play pretty far away from media centers and are given the chance to own the fringe sports media around them. But even in areas where Eastern League teams are not the main show in town, they manage a fair share of coverage. Generally. Here’s the best to worst of media coverage in the Eastern League:

1. Portland Seadogs

A beloved part of the Red Sox farm system, the Seadogs are covered very faithfully by the Portland Press Herald. The Herald provides the most satisfying coverage of any Eastern League team. Within the Seadogs section, there are stories about the depth of the Red Sox farm system and how it relates to the Seadogs, returning players that have a good shot of the big show this year, player and staff profiles, fan contests, and a kids page. In many ways, this is exactly what fringe sports coverage should do: commit resources to serious and passionate coverage of the local team, provide detailed information for fans, and allow them to connect with the team on multiple layers.

The Seadogs benefit from being in the fringes of Boston and the Red Sox in this situation. The affect of a minor league team that is too close to its major league club will be discussed later (see the Akron Aeros), but the Seadogs are far enough away from the Sox not to suffer from that problem. Instead, Portland is awash in the same general baseball fandom that all of New England experiences because Red Sox adoration is rampant among sports fans and sports media alike, regardless of how far from Boston they are. That passion rubs off on the media in Portland; that the team is connected to the Red Sox doesn’t hurt either.

2. New Britain Rock Cats

The media coverage of the Rock Cats, Double-A team of the Minnesota Twins, seems to be an anomaly. By virtue of being in the geographical No Man’s Land of baseball’s fiercest rivalry, New Britain gets inundated with Yankees and Red Sox coverage. But by being in the state that most readily supports the WNBA, the town also gets lots of women’s basketball coverage too. Despite that added competition, the Rock Cats get great media support. In addition to plenty of TV and radio coverage, The Herald of New Britain devotes plenty of column inches to the Rock Cats, even sending a correspondent to cover them in spring training in Fort Myers, Florida. The articles he wrote cover topics like how player movement in the Twins system benefits the Cats, how new players are adjusting, and how much the reporter – Ken Lipshez – enjoys spring training with the Cats. I think that could be part of the reason the Cats receive so much attention from The Herald – Lipshez enjoys writing about them. Probably, the fact that they won the Eastern League Championship recently helps, too.

3. Harrisburg Senators

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s an obvious trend that minor league teams that are not close to major leagues cities receive better media coverage in their areas than teams that are close to major league cities. The Senators, affiliated with the Washington Nationals, benefit from this trend. I don’t think it’s possible to be further away from major league baseball while still in Pennsylvania than by being in Harrisburg. As a result, the coverage that the Patriot News dotes on the Senators is fantastic. The team receives its own section from the paper, listing all of the games and scores, as well as articles from the paper and even the webcast schedule. Devotion to the team has even led obscure items like the team’s new uniforms and the maintenance of Commerce Bank Park, where the Senators play, getting attention and column inches, in addition to pieces on the team’s actual games.

4. Trenton Thunder

Affiliated with the Yankees, the coverage of that the Trenton Times is similar to that of the Senators. The depth of coverage is the same – with the Times providing an article on players who have played well enough to be promoted yet haven’t, another on the depth of the team for the time being, and also webcasts – and online they appear to even use the same HTML design sheet.

Geographically, compared with cities like Portland, Maine and Glendive, Montana, Trenton doesn’t appear to be in the fringes. It’s too close to Philadelphia and New York. But New Jersey might be an ideological fringe. Fans, media and people in general from New Jersey have such a strong identity as part of Jersey, they create their own fringe. The Thunder appear to get a lot of media coverage as papers and TV stations attempt to tap into that identity.

5. New Hampshire Fisher Cats

The Fisher Cats, affiliated with the Blue Jays and winners of the 2004 Eastern League championship, are not the only game in town in New Hampshire in the summers. For such a small state, there’s a lively minor and college summer league presence, another indication of how popular baseball is in the region thanks to the Red Sox. Since their arrival in 2004, though, the Fisher Cats have dominated the New Hampshire baseball scene. The Union Leader provides the team with its own section and publishes legitimate analysis of the team, including the battle to be the ace of the club and how the new manager is adjusting to his personnel and surroundings.

6. Erie Seawolves

Like the Harrisburg Senators, the Erie Seawolves (Seriously, guys – you’re on a lake, not a sea; it’s possible to be too cute with your mascot name.) benefit from being no where near a major league city. The Erie Times-News provides decent coverage, but Erie also seems to receive slightly better television coverage than other teams in the Eastern League. However, that could largely be due to the genuine fear during the last off-season that the Seawolves would move. The local NBC affiliate covered the story and discussed the $4 million dollar bond the city passed for improvements the Wolves’ park and the potential that the Tigers, the club’s parent team, might want the team closer to Detroit.

7. Altoona Curve

I think the Curve just barely escapes being too close to is parent club. Affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team is almost 100 miles away from Pittsburgh and is probably just far enough away to be in the geographic fringe of that media market. As such they get to own the fringe media around them. The Altoona Mirror has a number of excellent articles covering the Curve, leading up to opening day. Those pieces included a look at a rising star pitcher coming out of Single-A, a discussion of this year’s and last year’s opening day pitcher, and late changes in the roster due to shifts in the teams further up in the system.

8. Binghamton Mets

The Binghamton Mets don’t have to worry any major league baseball interfering with their media coverage. They’re in the middle of New York – safely away from their MLB team, the Mets (I know, clever, right?) – competing only with other Binghamton minor league teams. Their coverage reflects a town that is attached to the team and cares about them as a team in and of themselves, not in relation to the Mets. One article in the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin discusses the team’s bright new season. Another happily lists facts from team history in preparation for this year’s opening game. That the team sits in eighth place out of twelve says more about the media coverage of the teams above it than the media coverage it receives.

9. Connecticut Defenders

The Defenders – located in Norwich, Connecticut and affiliated with the San Francisco Giants – face some problems pretty unique to Connecticut media, the same ones that I thought should flummox the New Britain Rock Cats. Unfortunately, the Defenders have not been able to rally local media support the way the Cats have. In the last week, the Norwich Bulletin has published more stories about women’s basketball than the Defenders’ new season. Part of that could be due to the Defenders’ lackluster ticket sales, which were the lowest last season among all the Eastern League teams, when the team was known as the Norwich Navigators. According to the paper, though, team management is hopeful that the rebranding of the club as “Connecticut’s hometown team” will boost attendance and interest. Seems pretty doubtful to me, but we’ll see.

10. Reading Phillies

Three guesses as to which club the Phillies are affiliated with, and the first two don’t count. The team is covered by the Reading Eagle, which seems to be a little too close to Philadelphia. Most of the baseball coverage is devoted to the Phillies, the big league team, not the minor league one. There’s some coverage of the Reading Phillies, but I get the impression that the resources of the paper are spread pretty thin. Much of their coverage for all sports is purchased from the AP. Reading appears to be in the position of having to cover local sports while competing against nearby major league teams, but doesn’t have a large enough readership to devote more resources to its local sports coverage. The area also supports several minor league hockey teams, and I would be curious to come back next winter during the hockey season to see what the paper’s coverage of those teams is like. Maybe baseball is simply a second tier sport in the area.

11. Akron Aeros

The Aeros suffer the most from proximity to a major league team, the Indians, which is also the team they’re affiliated with. In some ways, this probably adds to the problem of proximity. Any minor league team, particularly one in a MLB farm system, deals with the problem of being the pre-game show.

A good portion of the fans that follow minor league teams do so in order to find out how good their favorite major league team will be in a few years. This is only exacerbated when the minor and major league teams are so close geographically, because fans can easily follow the players as they progress through the system. As a result, they root for the system and major league club more than the minor league team. Media in the area, feeding into what fans are looking for, treats the minor league team that way too.

In contrast, a minor league team that’s located on the other side of the country from their major league parent club is more likely to attract fans that follow the minor league team, not the major league team. Media responds to that and provides coverage accordingly. A case in point is the Manchester Monarchs, the AHL affiliate of the LA Kings. The Monarchs have their own fans and media coverage that are independent of the Kings. That would be less true if their players got called up to Boston, although the Bruins couldn’t skate their way out of a paper bag this year, so maybe not.

Anyway, the Aeros’ media coverage perfectly illustrates this point. The Akron Beacon Journal is the paper of record in Akron, and I’m sure it does a fine job of reporting current events in the area. But for sports, it spends much more time and energy covering the Indians than the Aeros, as is made obvious by its Aeros page. This is particularly true given that the stations covering Akron, are predominantly Cleveland stations, like WKYC. WKYC managed to report on the Aeros getting a new manager, but it was clearly in the context of how it would affect the Indians organization, not the Aeros.

12. Bowie Baysox

Poor Bowie Baysox. They play in a town that is very concerned about local affairs, with a weekly newspaper, the Bowie Blade(I dare you to find a cleverer name for a local paper) providing community updates. There’s also a daily, The Bowie Star whose sports section does an amazing job chronicling the local high school teams. It even does a great job with university sports. But the paper is hardly attached at all to its minor league baseball team, providing scant resources for its coverage.

It seems like the town is just big enough to have a minor league baseball team, but just a little too small to turn away from high school and college sports to pay much attention to it. Further complicating this is Bowie’s proximity to both Washington and Baltimore, whose pro sports teams steal a lot of the fans that might otherwise have gone to the Baysox. In particular the Baysox seem to suffer from the same problem as the Aeros, as the Bowie’s parent club, the Orioles, are just up the road. Strangely, I think the best coverage of the team comes from the Washington Freaking Post, which seems to have almost accidentally included the team in its sports pages.

The media coverage of the Eastern League indicates a few things that are important for future minor league teams and fringe media to take note of. First, teams in markets with fewer pro teams – minor or big league – receive more media coverage. That means that future teams shouldn’t shy away from markets that are away from media centers. The fringes can support teams too.

Second, areas that have an innate passion for the sport better support teams in that sport. Even though New Hampshire and Maine are small markets, particularly compared to the other places that have Eastern League teams, the Seadogs and the Fisher Cats get lots of press because New England loves baseball. Minor league teams would do well to remember those two fringe media rules.

And while this isn't a fringe media rule, I wouldn't mind seeing media for the other eleven teams ride the Trenton Thunder pretty hard. I have no doubt that the players and coaches are nice guys who play the game right. But some of them will eventually wear Yankees uniforms. Yes, the Yankees. When Jesus hates you, I'm not sure that even the fringe media can help.


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