There may be better ways to spend a summer vacation, although I can’t think of any. For two months this summer, I traveled around the country watching Minor League Baseball games, thanks to a Teacher Creativity Grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation.

Officially, the idea was to study the marketing methods used by Minor League Baseball teams, which happen to be so good that they’ve helped Minor League franchises across the country to record attendance, recession be danged.

Unofficially, I am never at a loss for an excuse to go watch baseball.

In the course of my travels, I was also hoping to get some ideas to bring back to the classroom.

Ah, the classroom – where I teach Business to high schoolers who are sometimes (most of the time) more interested in shooting arrows at balloons with a cartoon monkey (God bless internet games) than learning business fundamentals.

And while I did come up with the inspiration for a handful of great lesson plans, I stumbled upon something else.

I realized that nearly everything I was seeing at the ballparks – the wacky promotions, the entertaining mascots, and the carnival-like atmospheres – could easily be applied to high school athletics.

It may sound outlandish, marketing high school sports in the same manner that a professional sports league markets its product, but, the reality is that Minor League Baseball and high school sports already have a lot in common.

I’ll give you a few examples in friendly, bullet point format:

* Due to athlete turnover, both the Minor Leagues and high school athletics typically promote teams as a whole as opposed to individual players

* In most markets, fans will attend Minor League games regardless of how well the team is playing. In other words, it doesn’t matter much if the team wins. Fans attend the games to have fun and see young talent develop. Is high school that much different?

* Minor League teams, especially in the lower levels where the teams play in smaller towns, are a big part of their communities. As a result, the fan mix at most MiLB games is a cross-section of hardcore fans, casual observers, uninterested socialites, and hyper-active youngsters. In a lot of ways it is the same type of crowd found at a high school sporting event.

Any high school athletics program, regardless of size, can adopt a Minor League mindset to help boost community interest, fan support, school spirit, and attendance – all of which directly benefit the school.

So, with fall sports in full swing, I thought it would be a good time to discuss a few tenets of the Minor League Mindset and how they can be applied to high school athletics.

Part I: Focus on the Fan

It is hard to create a caricature of the “typical” Minor League Baseball fan, because the crowds that attend the games are so diverse. All age groups and levels of interest are represented at the ballpark. Yet, for all their differences, fans at Minor League games seem to have one thing in common: they all have fun.

So, how do these franchises go about entertaining fans ranging in age from infants to octogenarians? Most minor league front office people readily admit that it’s not always about the team on the field.

Sure, some of the fans are there to watch baseball. But, even big baseball fans would have a hard time mustering up enough excitement to go see a lineup like this:

Means – RF

Sappelt – CF

Puckett – 2B

Mendez, C – 3B

Brown, T – LF

Coddington – DH

Day – 1B

Wideman – C

Rojas – SS

Janke – P

Not exactly household names. Nevertheless, 8,584 people piled into Fifth Third Field in Dayton, Ohio to watch these Dayton Dragons take on the Fort Wayne Tincaps on July 2nd.

If it’s not the game itself, what’s drawing 8,000+ fans a night to Dayton, and other ballparks across the country?

Minor League baseball teams have an unrelenting focus on the fan. Everything they do is designed to entertain, and most of the entertainment is interactive. Downtime between innings is filled with contests, with the participants being plucked right from the crowd. Fans may race one another around the bases, sumo wrestle, dance on dugouts, sing karaoke, and play “Let’s Make a Deal” – all before the seventh inning stretch.

As one front office executive put it to me, “baseball is just a backdrop we use to perform our shtick.”

Fans not participating in the “shtick” are treated to what basically amounts to a live-action reality show. What nine-year old will be able to put on a Dragons uniform and race around the bases the quickest? Tune in between the fourth and fifth innings to find out!

All of these contests provide family fun and help turn spectators into participators and casual fans into season ticket holders. In addition, they provide a unique advertising opportunity for sponsors – an issue we’ll discuss in part two.

Focusing on the fan also means providing a comfortable atmosphere. I visited over 20 Minor League stadiums this summer, and I don’t recall seeing a single scrap of paper laying on the ground in any of the concourses or men’s rooms.

All of the stadiums were clean, all had good food (some obviously better than others) and regardless of where I was at, it was always easy to spot an usher if I needed something.

Adopting a Minor League mindset and a fan-focused attitude requires more from an Athletic Director than scheduling officials, chalking the field, and turning on the lights. It’s about creating an environment where people are always wondering “what are they going to do next?”

But, the beautiful thing is, adopting a fan-friendly focus doesn’t take a lot of extra money or staff. Athletic Directors can work with students to develop theme nights and contests. They can leverage their school’s existing website to advertise their programs (a topic which we’ll cover in part three). They could even partner with the booster club to find volunteers to serve as ushers/fan assistants.

In the end, fans that have fun at a sporting event will continue to come back. The Minor Leagues have proven that. There’s no reason why the same wouldn’t hold true at the high school level.