With the Toronto Blue Jays home opener on Friday, baseball season will officially start in Canada. Team owners Rogers Communications Inc. will be hoping that merch-hungry fans will visit stadium shops, snapping up jerseys, hats – and Hello Kitty gear.
It may seem a curious partnership, but it worked so well in its test phases, Major League Baseball has extended its marketing deal with Sanrio Inc., the Tokyo-based company behind the brand best known for cute pink backpacks and cartoon-festooned pencils. All 30 MLB teams, including the Blue Jays, will be selling co-branded products including Hello Kitty baseballs and mobile phone covers.
It's just one example of a growing contingent of marketers who are realizing the potential in female baseball fans, who now make up 46 per cent of MLB's fan base.
This year, for example, nail polish brand OPI signed a deal with MLB to create the "fashion plate" line of polish in common team colours designed for baseball fans. The colours include "Love Athletes in Cleats," "Girls Love Diamonds" and "Umpires Come Out at Night" (translation: red, white, and blue.) There is also an orange hue that will appeal to fans in Detroit, San Francisco, and Baltimore.
"Baseball, traditionally the domain of men, has increasingly attracted more and more female fans," OPI said in its promotional materials.
"You're talking to a league that has been focusing on its women fan base for many years," said Howard Smith, MLB's senior vice-president of licensing. "...There are a lot of women out there who want to support their teams, and they want to do it in their own unique, feminine, stylish way. It's not going to stop. It's going to grow and grow."
Marketers are taking notice.
G-III Apparel Group recognized the need for more female-friendly fan clothing in 2007, teaming up with MLB and erstwhile TV star Alyssa Milano to design the Touch apparel line. The line targets female fans of a variety of major league sports, including MLB, and is sold in stadium stores and on league websites.
Retailer Victoria's Secret also got in on the action. Its PINK clothing brand, which markets to younger women, has a line of clothing for all 30 teams. It launched roughly five years ago with 11 MLB franchises and has since expanded. And Nike Inc. also sells team clothing targeted at women both in stadiums and on MLB.com. But the league has not had as much merchandise targeted to younger women and girls, until now, with Hello Kitty.
Sanrio first noticed the potential of baseball as a marketing vehicle in 2011, when one of its corporate executives in baseball-mad Japan met a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. The company soon began talks with the club, which hosted the first Hello Kitty Day at Dodgers stadium. Hello Kitty threw the ceremonial first pitch. The team offered Hello Kitty tickets to the game, which came with a plush doll dressed in Dodgers Gear. They sold out.
"It was pandemonium," said Dave Marchi, senior director of brand management and marketing at Sanrio's Los Angeles headquarters. "That led to additional promotions."
Staff at Sanrio's U.S. offices also noticed that some fans were wearing unofficial "bootleg shirts" that they had made featuring the cartoon character and their team logos – a missed merchandising opportunity for the brand.
Now, with all 30 MLB teams on board, Sanrio is hoping to seize an opportunity for marketing to women in the stands.
North America is a growth market for Sanrio. In the first nine months of 2013, North American sales rose 22.6 per cent to ¥8.1-billion($860.6-million). In the company's latest earnings report, sporting goods and clothing were highlighted among the higher performing categories.
It is now in talks with MLB teams, including the Jays, to find further marketing opportunities, such as more Hello Kitty days at ball parks.
The Hello Kitty brand rarely uses traditional advertising, Mr. Marchi said, and relies more heavily on social media and word of mouth to reach its target customers, who are women, and especially female teens and preteens. Mr. Marchi believes the baseball promotion is a brand fit.
"We get the women and girls and families coming out to the parks," he said. "We've even seen grown men sporting the caps with Hello Kitty's bow on it as well."
MLB has been reaching out to more female-focused brands to discuss potential marketing partnerships, the league's Mr. Smith said.
"The woman fan, for years, she's been accustomed to, 'I'll buy a jersey in a boys extra large or large, maybe you'll make it pink for me and that's the best I'll do,'" Mr. Smith said. "Now, you can buy everything from nail polish to jerseys to hats to jewellery; everything we make, we also design specifically for women."