PORTLAND — Crusher, the mascot for Maine’s new minor league basketball team, stalked the stands at the Portland Expo last Sunday night with two dancers, looking for a lucky fan to receive a fresh hot pizza from Portland Pie.
The giveaway is one of the ways the Maine Red Claws are fostering relationships with local businesses and fans, all the while creating a strong brand for the team and its merchandise.
The Red Claws have only played six NBA Development League games, but since losing their season-opener, the team has won five straight and owns the third-best record in the D-League.
But when it comes to marketing, President and General Manager Jon Jennings said, the Red Claws are leading the league in merchandise and season-ticket sales and rank near the top in corporate sponsorships.
D-League Marketing Director J.P. Lespinaffe said he could not release actual merchandising figures or say exactly which team leads in sales. However, Lespinaffe said the Red Claws were certainly in the top four of the 17-team league in merchandise sales and sponsorships.
“We are super excited about the start the Red Claws have had this season,” he said. “They are doing a bang-up job. Jon Jennings has done a fantastic job understanding the customer.”
Jennings largely attributed the team’s marketing success to examples set by minor league teams past and present, including the Maine Mariners, Portland Pirates and Portland Sea Dogs.
“People by-and-large were ready of this kind of basketball in Maine,” Jennings said.
But that’s not to say that the Red Claws marketing team isn’t helping its own cause through branding the team logo and colors.
Along with the usual line-up of T-shirts, key chains, press-on tattoos and hats, the team also offers unique merchandise. Instead of foam fingers, the Red Claws sell foam claws and the team has partnered with Amy Bouchard’s Isamax Snacks to create “Hoopie Pies,” a Wicked Whoopie Pie sold in a Red Claws package.
More recently the team partnered with Gritty McDuff’s for its own beer, Red Claws Ale. The Fore Street brew-pub officially celebrated the release of the beer on Dec. 10.
Red Claws Ale will be sold on draught at Gritty’s locations in Portland, Freeport and Lewiston-Auburn, as well as in select bars and restaurants in the state. Twenty-two-ounce bottles of Red Claws Ale will be available at many area retailers and early next year collectors can buy Red Claws Ale tap handles at Gritty’s Brewtique in Portland.
Although final returns for Sunday night’s game were still being finalized, Jennings said the local micro-brew is the top-selling beer at events.
“It’s really popular,” Jennings said. “It’s outselling all other beers at the Expo.”
Meanwhile, the Red Claws are one of the few teams to have their merchandise available outside of a game venue.
“Olympia (Sports) is selling our T-shirts and hats and that is very unique,” Jennings said.
The team also made a splash with its uniforms, placing two players on a boat and shipping them into a press conference on the Portland waterfront.
Meanwhile, the team has sold 1,440 season’s tickets, which accounts for nearly half of the seats at the 3,040-seat Portland Expo. The team also has about 60 corporate sponsors; its major sponsors include Quirk Chevrolet, Sun Tan City, Unum, TD Bank, Dunkin Donuts and Oxford Networks.
While the Red Claws marketing machine seems to be firing on all cylinders, Jennings said more attention is being focused on improving game experience for the fans. Seating issues at the sold-out home opener on Dec. 4 have largely been ironed out, he said.
Meanwhile, Jennings hopes to designate the baseline bleachers as “The Trap,” for the team’s most zealous fans. While fans on Sunday night seemed to have gotten the notice – waiving their hands and taunting the opposing team’s free-throw shooters, the overall initiative must grow organically, he said.
“That’s where the Duke-like fans would be,” he said, referring to the students known as “Cameron Crazies” who attend the Duke University’s basketball games at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. “You can’t artificially create that, (but) after two home games, you can see we have some very zealous fans.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fans buy Maine Red Claws merchandise during the opening period of the Dec. 13 game at the Portland Expo.
A banner promotes Gritty McDuff’s Red Claws Ale at the Portland Expo.