Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Invasive Species: How Baseball's Least Popular Brand Scored a Win on the Road, or the Anatomy of a Fad by Brett Essler

Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, it felt like Buffalo’s MLB affections were up for grabs.

Our Triple-A Bisons were the team to watch for prospects of the rust-belt Indians or Pirates, and local
politicians had for years convinced us that Buffalo was ripe for an expansion team. For a fix of the majors, most of us tuned into WPIX to watch the Yankees (and disturbing Carvel spots).

Just an hour-and-forty-five minutes up the QEW was Toronto’s CNE Stadium, home to the closest MLB team, but it never seemed like Buffalo gave the Blue Jays much love. Sure, we’d pile in the car to catch a game once a summer, but I can’t recall a single die-hard Jays fan among my circle of friends.

In 2014, not much has changed. A recent Harris Interactive poll revealed that the Jays are the least popular MLB team in the states. (In Canada, where they are the only MLB team, one supposes they rank a bit higher.) I state this data point not to pile on regarding the Jays’ historical lack of enthusiasm among fans south of the border, but to contrast empirical market research with facts on the ground.

These days I call upper Manhattan home and my daily A train commute through Harlem and Washington Heights takes me to the heart of Yankees country. On a clear night, I can see the stadium lights from my roof. It is in this seemingly inhospitable environment that Blue Jays caps have begun appearing with alarming frequency amidst a dark blue sea of Yankee swag.

My trips to (capital-S) Subway tend to be transactional, but one day last fall when I noticed that the
pickles-pepper-sauce guy was wearing a black Jays cap I could not help but engage. The question of why people with no Jays affiliation would be wearing their caps was making me twitchy.

“Is that a Blue Jays’ cap?” I ask, which likely makes me look quite foolish since I obviously know it is.

“Yeah,” he responds, glancing past me at the growing line of customers eager to ingest fresh-baked
bread laced with a chemical also found in yoga mats.

“Curious, why are you wearing it?”

“I dunno. The colors, I guess. What do you want on this?”

“Pickles, banana peppers, a little sweet onion sauce...not too much.”

Back at the office I gnaw on my sandwich. Unsatisfied in every way.

A few weeks later, my wife and I were strolling through the Village when we came upon the New Era
store on East 4th. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a display worthy of a precious artifact—in a glass museum case, lit for maximum sparkle, is a black, gold-logo Jays cap. The brim is stiff as a board; the jay’s beady black eye stares listlessly from its climate-controlled habitat, Alphamale Yankees logos peering down from every direction.

We step inside and I ask the sales clerk, “What is the deal with the Jays’ cap trapped in amber?”

“Oh, it’s Drake’s cap.”

My wife: “Who is Drake?”

Me, flexing my pop culture bona fides: “A rapper.”

Clerk: “He was on Degrassi High, his character was in a wheelchair.”

My wife: “Oh, we used to watch that show when we were kids.”

Blank stares all around. Degrassi High is possibly Canada’s most enduring/endearing television
export—more well known, though less beloved, than Hockey Night in Canada. A Canadian Menudo or Mickey Mouse Club, its cast members going to on to mainstream fame (Drake) or, occasionally, indie fame (Sarah Polley).

But Drake alone could not be responsible for what my friend, a journalist and Yankees fanantic, deems nothing more than a passing fad. As my grandfather always said, when New Yorkers will give you no satisfactory answer regarding a pop culture trend, ask a Canadian.

Vijuy Setlur, a sports marketing professor at Toronto’s York University tells me the appeal of the Jays’ caps stems from a variety of factors—the colors, the logo that straddles the line between vintage and modern, and the simple fact that the logo is “an actual image rather than just simply a letter.”

He does not discount any number of other reasons for the brand’s popularity outside of the Jays’traditional market—Drake’s boosterism, the team’s historical relationship to the Dominican community—but feels that, ultimately, “youth are always looking for the latest and the newest trend.”

Setlur relays his own Jay spotting in New York story to back up his thesis.

“A couple of years ago I was on the train going to Jackson Heights, and I noticed that a young kid was wearing the old Blue Jays logo, the one from pre-2012 with the angry looking bird, ” he recalls. “I asked him why he’s wearing that and I guess he just said he liked the look of it.”

Setlur says the trend is largely an organic, youthdriven cultural phenomenon not initiated by the club in any organized way. His suspicions are confirmed when I speak with Anthony Partipilo, the Jays’ VP of Marketing and Merchandising.

“The exact reason for it, I don’t know,” he says. “It may just be the fact that some people really love the style of that cap. It’s just a fashion item, it looks great, it looks terrific, the colors are vibrant, obviously blue and red are very powerful colors, and it may hook up very well with whatever they’re wearing.”

Any sales figures beyond the anecdotal are difficult to come by, as the MLB, Blue Jays, and New Era
are all privately held and will not disclose data. Partipilo says that sales of Jays’ merch “is up very significantly, double digits over what they would’ve been prior to 2012,” the year the team re-branded with an update of their vintage bird/maple leaf logo after eight years of the aforementioned “angry-looking bird.”

Rennie Gajadhar, from New Era’s Canadian headquarters, tells me in an e-mail that the 2013 Diamond Era Jays’ cap “was the number one selling Diamond Era cap in all of North America” and that Drake’s OVO cap—the one in New Era’s Village retail store—“definitely gave the logo and team some worldwide exposure.”

“While the goal of every professional franchise is to grow their global appeal, at the end of the day I don’t believe the Jays have been making a concentrated effort in any specific markets outside of Canada, so this must be happening organically,” he says.

“Organic” is the type of success any brand would be delighted to have. The downside? Without beating the brand over the heads of the cap-buying demographics like some other teams, the Blue Jays moment in the sun may be short-lived.

“Once something that’s new becomes old and outdated, then people move on to the next thing,” Setlur says. “It’s almost like an emerging area of the city—once it becomes more mainstream and people start inhabiting it and visiting it more often, then the tastemakers like to find a new area of the city to kind of cultivate and grow different types of business.”

In New York, the baseball season never really ends. But fall does eventually turn to winter and the stiffbrimmed fitted caps get placed on the shelf until next spring when they very likely will be replaced by another team’s snarling regional bird or ‘70’s throwback logo.

It’s New Year’s Eve and I haven’t seen a Jays’ cap in maybe two months. Had the blue jays’ hawk-like jeer gone silent? Migrated to Boca for off-season rehab?

I sit on a 2 a.m. uptown A with a dozen other bleary-eyed souls. The doors slide open at 145th and
across the tracks was a kid slumped on the bench.

Perched on his head: a bright-blue Toronto Blue Jays cap, the only fleck of color in an otherwise dreary, earth-tone subway station.

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