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Working for Bay Plaza Companies/Russ Cline & Associates, a venue marketing and management company hired by the City of St. Petersburg, Fla., I was asked to handle PR strategy and publicity as part of the city’s marketing efforts to acquire a Major League Baseball expansion franchise in 1991. It was a politically-sensitive time in St. Pete, as elected officials had spent residents’ tax money to build a downtown dome stadium in hopes that the new facility might attract a big league tenant.
Once the stadium had opened, the only step left for St. Petersburg to fulfill all of MLB’s requirements was to demonstrate that the Florida city possessed a fan base that would adequately support a baseball franchise. Headed by Assistant City Manager Rick Dodge, other city employees and myself, we launched a season ticket deposit campaign to demonstrate the area’s hunger for Major League Baseball. To make the most impact on MLB team owners and league officials, our strategy was not only to sell the most season ticket deposits ever by a potential expansion city but to sell the highest total in the shortest amount of time—thus begging the question, “if they could sell this many deposits in this time period, I wonder how many they could sell in a full offseason?”
In order to accomplish that goal, we began by holding private meetings with the largest companies in the Tampa Bay area to solicit their support prior to the campaign launch. Our sales pitch: we needed everyone to help because this was essentially not a private effort but a public one. Major companies made financial pledges on the spot, and even exceeded those pledges by enlisting their thousands of employees to participate as well. We also met with all of the major media outlets, again asking for their volunteer support because a baseball team represented a huge community asset. Publishers promised to run insert ticket deposit forms in their Sunday editions, while one TV network affiliate and the prominent sports radio station in town decided to collect deposits during commercial-free programming.
In a telethon tradition, our strategy was to have thousands of deposits already in hand before we announced the start of the campaign. By doing so, we were able to write a press release and stage a second media conference only days after the initiation announcement. The news was that already 10,000 season ticket deposits had been sold in three days! When sports fans in the Tampa Bay area heard that total, it created a veritable gold rush as we had hoped. People did not want to be left out, since the order of these purchased deposits would determine what location your seats might be at the first season of a team playing in the Florida Suncoast Dome (now called Tropicana Field, home of the Rays).
We continued to market season ticket deposits through the region, making appearances at large shopping malls and other locations, and holding media conferences and photo opportunities every few days to announce new totals. After three weeks, a final number was revealed: 24,000 season ticket deposits. We had sold more deposits than all other expansion team suitors combined and we had sold them in the most compressed period of time.