When Major League Baseball reduced the number of affiliated minor league teams to 120 before the 2021 season, it transformed another league – the Appalachian League.
Ten of the minor league teams that didn’t make the cut were those in the Appalachian League, which has been around since 1911. Instead it became a summer league for college players.
This meant that teams such as the Bluefield Blue Jays and Bristol Pirates and Danville Braves Pulaski Yankees — the four Virginia teams in the three-state league — needed new names.
After years of identifying solely with big-league clubs, these teams are now able to represent the communities in which they are located.
Dan Moushon, president of the Appalachian League, said the contraction turned out to be “a blessing” for this reason.
“These local clubs never had the opportunity to have their own identities or their own market bases or merchandise that was unique to their community,” Moushon said. “When we lost the affiliates, we needed new names and rebranding. There’s really a reason behind the names now.”
And local team names can have a positive impact on branding, marketing and ultimately revenue.
In a 2016 study by the University of San Francisco, researchers found that “the largest merchandise gains are generated by teams that adopt new, local names.”
This is because local brands can become symbols of the local culture, increasing community brand awareness and interest. Local brands also generate higher merchandise sales, according to the study.
Using annual data on merchandise revenues from Minor League Baseball, the researchers found that “teams that shift from an MLB to a local name see an average net gain of $12,171, whereas teams that abandon local names lose $256,588, if they adopt an MLB name.”
Local branding can even affect game turnout.
“Regarding attendance, consumers are unaffected when a MiLB team abandons an MLB name,” the study says. “In contrast, abandoning a local name is associated with attendance decreases, merchandise increases, and a net loss.”
So, the 10 Appalachian League teams that have rebranded to unique, community-specific names, seem to be on the right track. Last year, seven of the league’s 10 teams saw attendance rise over 2019, according to Ballpark Digest, with attendance in Bristol nearly doubling. (There was no minor league baseball in 2020 due to the pandemic.)
|Team||Average 2019 attendance||Average 2021 attendance|
|Pulaski Yankees / Pulaski River Turtles||2,821||3,120|
|Johnson City Cardinals / Johnson City Doughboys||2,519||2,277|
|Burlington Royals / Burlington Sock Puppets||1,216||1.663|
|Greeneville Reds / Greeneville Flyboys||1,322||1,233|
|Kingsport Mets / Kingsport Axmen||896||1,227|
|Bristol Pirates / Bristol State Liners||586||1,187|
|Danville Braves / Danville Otterbots||909||990|
|Elizabethton Twins / Elizabethton River Riders||811||832|
|Bluefield Blue Jays / Bluefield Ridge Runners||674||717|
|Princeton Rays / Princeton Whistle Pigs||731||679|
One of the most unique new names in the league, alongside the Burlington Sock Puppets in North Carolina, is the Danville Otterbots.
This name wasn’t chosen on a whim, said Otterbots General Manager Austin Scher.
“Every single piece of the brand, the name, the font, the logo, the colors, the mascot, everything is designed to represent our community,” Scher said. “This is the first time in Danville’s history within the Appalachian League that we were given that opportunity.”
Let’s break that down.
The name: The “Otterbots” name is a combination of two ideas. The Dan River, which you can access about 50 meters from the ballpark front gate, is home to many families of otters and was instrumental to the development of the city.
The “bots” part comes from the push in Southern Virginia “toward a STEM-based future through education, industry and workforce,” Scher said.
This name was chosen after a two-week name-the-team contest, in which community members submitted over 1,200 ideas.
“This wasn’t a name that was pulled out of a hat,” Scher said. “This was a name that took literally countless hours making sure it was something that did represent the community.”
The font: it is a striking, overlapping typeface that is meant to convey the look of neon casino signage, a credit to the Caesars Entertainment casino resort coming to Danville, Scher said.
The logo: the rings of water that spin around the otter are “a slight homage to the rich motor sports history in the area,” Scher said. They are designed to look like the blur of car lights racing around the track.
The Virginia International Raceway, the Martinsville Speedway and the South Boston Speedway are all less than an hour drive from the Otterbots’ ballpark.
The colors: the blue references the Dan River, and the orange is an exact color match to the “Home” sign on Danville’s Main Street.
The mascot: named Scotter the Otter, the Otterbots mascot is a tribute to Wendell Scott, Danville native and one of the first Black racecar drivers in NASCAR history, Scher said.
“[Scotter the Otter] wears a helmet, gloves and shoes that are a direct replica of the gear that Wendell was wearing when he was driving,” Scher said.
Truly, every piece of the brand is meant to represent Danville, and Scher said this has made a big impact on merchandise sales, though he doesn’t have exact numbers for how much gear has been sold.
“All I can say is, and I’m not lying, it took close to 48 hours to pack up the merchandise orders that came in just in the 18 hours after the brand announcement and ship them out,” Scher said.
The team has sold merch to all 50 states, Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam, the United Kingdom and Australia. And the Otterbots Twitter account has followers in every continent except Australia, he said.
The Otterbots just announced a collaboration with Ballad Brewing, a local brewery, a team branded beer: the Lagerbot. The Lagerbot is only sold at the ballpark and Ballad Brewing itself, making it another connection between the team and the community.
And other teams in the league are seeing similar successes.
The Bristol Pirates became the Bristol State Liners. The Bluefield Blue Jays, who play right on the border with West Virginia, became the Blue Ridge Ridge Runners.
Ridge Runners General Manager Rocky Malasmisura said the same positive impact on merchandise sales has been felt in Bluefield after the rebranding.
“We have some more latitude with our logos,” he said. “We can change things and offer products that we were not able to before and that has made a marked difference in sales.”
Malasmisura said this is the first time in Bluefield’s baseball history that the team has been able to brand itself and partner with the community.
The Pulaski River Turtles prioritized a kid-friendly brand after the contraction, said General Manager J.W. Martin. The team and its mascot, Slider, frequently visit schools in the area for book readings and other activities.
And the switch to a collegiate league has increased attendance and national visibility, Martin said, which is consistent with the USF study.
“Last season, we had so many families from across the United States come in and visit us during home games to watch their nephew or grandchild play baseball,” he said. “That was not something that was commonplace when we were affiliated with the Yankees.”
And while losing the Yankees affiliation was disappointing at first, Martin said, there’s more of a community atmosphere at the ballpark now, in addition to an increase in ticket sales.
“The community has an even greater connection to the athletes on the field than we had when we were an affiliate,” he said.
The contraction brought “fear of the unknown” at first, said Moushon.
“But Major League Baseball immediately said that they wanted to keep baseball in these 10 communities, and our clubs just kept faith that that would happen,” he said. “And it did. It worked out great.”