When it was over, and the votes had been counted, Derek Franks was, let us say, a shell of himself. Kurt Landes? He was just tickled to bits. A veritable pig in slop.
But for these two men – and really, for all of America — there was no loser in 2017’s greatest culinary conflict, this food fight between bacon and tacos. In this battle for gluttony greatness, all the themes that makes us great as a nation sizzled forth: Democracy, competition, mean tweets, and meat sweats.
In the end, bacon savored sweet victory. But when it came to the 2017 Ballpark Digest Award for Best Promotion, both the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Class AAA; International League) and the Fresno Grizzles (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) were the taste of 2017.
“Even if we didn’t sell any merchandise, that re-entry into people’s minds in the spring that’s it’s baseball season and it’s time to get your tickets, that PR campaign is worth it,” said Landes, the president and general manager of the IronPigs. “But when you succeed with both ticket sales and especially with merchandise, that’s the true home run.”
The joint promotion between Lehigh Valley and Fresno was a social media sensation, utilizing tools like Twitter and a specifically designed micro website combined with some publicity-generating antics that paid homage to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
The result was a nationwide poll with one question on the ballot. Bacon or Tacos? The microsite, baconsvstacos.com, provided the virtual voting booth while the teams’ two general managers, Landes and Franks, duked it out on social media, trading barbs and pranks that left readers sometimes unsure if the fight was real or imagined.
What was very real was the entrepreneurial spirit of the two franchises, which capitalized on branding and promotional savvy to create alternative identities. The teams unveiled new logos, hats and uniforms to personify the clash — “Fighting Bacon” vs. “Fighting Tacos” — which led to spikes in ticket and merchandise sales for both teams.
Lehigh Valley was first to explore this avenue, creating a bacon-themed alternative logo and uniform in 2014. Fresno saw the success of the bacon theme and, after consulting with their future sparring partners, the Grizzles introduced their own alternate theme in 2015. Because of the rich history of the taco and the food truck industry in Fresno, the Tacos were a natural choice for a companion logo and uniform.
“We had the perfect storm here, as far as the culture goes,” Franks said. “This is where taco trucks were born. And then food trucks became a thing. It caught on here because it’s ingrained in our culture. It’s the same in every market, where teams can find the thing their fans can identify with. It depends on where you’re from and why it’s so powerful. People enjoy it and get into it.”
When Landes saw what Franks had wrought, he took to Twitter to needle the Grizzlies for copycatting their idea. That led to a good-natured back and forth between the two GMs and PR staffs that persisted throughout 2016.
“My favorite thing about it is, it truly did start with the back-and-forth between the two staffs years ago,” Franks said. “It started as real Twitter beefs over promotions. We didn’t orchestrate that stuff early on. We had some organic Twitter fights that had people paying attention to the two clubs. Then fast-forward to this year and it culminates with a promotion like this. It makes it really cool to think back.”
It was during the Winter Meetings after the 2016 season that the teams got together face-to-face and hashed out their secret plan to take the feud to the next level of Frenemies.
“The real genesis came about probably about a year and a half ago where at some point, people said, ‘Enough is enough, can’t we all just get along and have a bacon taco?’” Landes said. “And that got us thinking, ‘What if we combine the power of these two teams? Was there anything else we could do to separate ourselves from the pack?’
“We wanted to put a new twist on bacon with the new logo we’d come up with and Fresno was in the process of doing the same, so we worked together to continue to raise our brands by continuing this fun ‘fight’ our fans had seen and participated in for the better part of two years.”
With the help of Brandiose, a San Diego-based sports marketing company, the two teams came up with the plan to increase the Twitter war or words, leading up to a March 21 “reveal” of the baconsvstacos.com website and online vote. The new logos and uniforms would be revealed at “press conferences” held by both GMs.
“I credit those guys at Brandiose,” Franks said. “They came to us with the idea. We have been bigger instigators, as far as our social media with other teams. And Lehigh Valley was one of our targets often, and they came after us several times. I remember [Brandiose] coming up and saying, ‘Hey, let’s settle the score.’ And then having a good way for us to do it.”
As the 2017 regular season approached, the long-simmering Twitter war between Landes and Franks heated up like an oil-filled skillet.
— Kurt Landes (@kurtlandes) March 21, 2017
By late March, even some fellow GMs openly questioned what was happening between the two.
“I felt guilty at times because we were arguing on social media for the better part of a month and especially the last week leading up to the announcement,” Landes said. “Fresno and us, of course, knew there was going to be an announcement, but the rest of the baseball world thinks this is a real fight, with harsh words between Derek and myself. And I felt bad because I’d hear from other GMs like, ‘I can’t believe you’re taking this from Fresno. I can’t believe you said that on Twitter.’
“We always wanted to be respectful and not cross the line, but we certainly wanted people to feel it was genuine, and a lot of it was genuine. We had a general script, but not a specific script. So, it was fun. And for our fans to be engaged with it, the press conferences, the microsite where you could go and vote, everything was fun and engaging.”
Finally, on March 21, came the big reveal. In dueling “press conferences,” Landes and Franks – who used the occasion to fulfill a childhood dream of portraying a WWF-style promoter – took their “battle” to the public, launching baconsvstacos.com and announcing a May 28 voting deadline.
“I’m sick of your bacon! I’m sick of your Belgian waffle tacos,” Franks said, adorned in sunglasses and playing the heel to the hilt. “We’ve been waiting for this day a very long time, because these fools, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, I’ve been watching them make fools of themselves on Twitter, trying to put their nose in our business. They made a big mistake.”
“They picked the wrong team to pick a food fight with,” Landes fired back. ““We’re sick and tired of their fake news and alternative facts. Bacon was first and bacon is best. Period.”
The teams stipulated that the loser of the online vote would wear the alternative logo and uniform of their rival for one game this summer. Both teams then introduced logos and uniforms, the “Fighting Bacon” and “Fighting Tacos.”
In the end, the nation declared its appetite for bacon too overwhelming. The final vote came down in favor of bacon, 53-47.
As befitting the year-long feud, the Tacos’ response was a bit cheesy. The team did wear the “Fighting Bacon” hats and uniforms on July 21, but not before Franks had the hats altered to reflect a carnitas-themed taco.
But off the field, both teams saw an immediate spike in merchandise sales. For Fresno, the sale of “Fighting Taco” gear easily surpassed the amount of taco-related merchandise from 2016 and rivaled the amount sold in the initial “Taco” year of 2015, when Franks required a full-time position just to handle orders.
“We try to enter the season with a splash to get our fans thinking about baseball again, so we accomplished that goal,” Landes said. “We certainly both sold merchandise. But to do it with two teams from two different leagues from across the country, it added a different element that hadn’t been done before. It’s what made it fun and made it a challenge at the same time.”
There were multiple contenders in the mix for 2017 Promotion of the Year, and we are recognizing some with honorable mentions.
On August 25, the Erie SeaWolves (Class AA; Eastern League) staged Alternative Facts Night. For that night’s contest against the Akron Yellow Bath Toys, the SeaWolves handed out 2016 Eastern League Championship rings to the first 1,000 fans in attendance “It’s always an honor when you’re recognized among the elites in Minor League Baseball, especially on the promotional side,” said Greg Gania, SeaWolves assistant general manager/ communications. “With the Alternative Facts night, we really struck gold and it’s truly an honor to have this recognition.”
Another honorable mention goes to the broader trend of teams collaborating on promotions, which included numerous clubs in addition to the IronPigs and Grizzlies. Whether was the South Atlantic League’s Lexington Legends and West Virginia Power paying homage to the Hatfield/McCoy rivalry, or the Nashville Sounds and Round Rock Express bringing the battle for the #BattleForTheBoot to the Pacific Coast League, the 2017 season was full of creative examples of team pairing up for promotions. A Promotions Watch in June of this year took a look at some of the more notable examples around baseball.
2017 Ballpark Digest Award Winners
Organization of the Year: Trinity Sports Holdings
Team of the Year: Hartford Yard Goats
Continued Excellence: Vancouver Canadians
Editor’s Choice Award For Outstanding Achievement: Redband Rally Campaign, Spokane Indians
Best Ballpark Improvement (Under $1M): Modern Woodmen Park Amusements
Best Charity Effort: Quad Cities River Bandits
Editor’s Choice Award: National Eclipse Games
Best New Food Item: Beercheese Poutine
Best New Concessions Experience: Miller Park
Best Ballpark Improvement (Over $1M): Great Dane Duck Blind
Executive of the Year: Ryan Keur
Best New Logo/Branding: Down East Wood Ducks
Best Ballpark Renovation (MiLB): Fluor Field, Greenville Drive
Broadcasters: Howard Kellman and Mick Gillespie
Ballpark of the Year: SunTrust Park, Atlanta Braves
Past Ballpark Digest Promotion of the Year Winners
2016: My Big Fat Fresno Wedding Show
2015: Ambush Baseball, Brooklyn Cyclones
2014: MiLB Promo of the Year, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
2014: Summer-Collegiate Promo: Kalamazoo Growlers
2013: Promotions of the Year, Lehigh Valley IronPigs
2012: Home-Run Derby, Charleston RiverDogs
2009: BPD Promotions of the Year, Trenton, Lakewood and Quad Cities
2008: St. Paul Saints, Fresno Grizzlies