A trip to the ballpark isn’t complete without a hot dog or two. Fans of the Buffalo Bisons, the AAA minor-league baseball affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, have enjoyed hot dogs from Sahlen Packing Co. for several years as they’ve watched future superstars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette come to town. This year, fans will go to the same ballpark, but that park has a brand new name: Sahlen Field.
Sahlen’s has been the ‘Official Hot Dog of the Bisons’ since the 2012 season, with nearly a million hot dogs served to Bisons fans since the partnership began.
“As we at Sahlen celebrate our 150th year of doing business in 2019, we couldn’t be more excited about expanding our relationship with the Bisons. Both brands have a rich history in Buffalo, and we are looking forward to another great season,” Joe E. Sahlen, owner of Sahlen’s, said at the time of the announcement.
The 10-year naming rights agreement was completed at the end of 2018 and kicked off with the start of this season. It’s the latest sports-related investment made by the Buffalo, N.Y. processor. In addition to its partnership with the Bisons, Sahlen’s is the official hot dog of the Florida Panthers (National Hockey League), Charlotte Knights (Minor League Baseball) and the Western New York Flash. The Flash, a professional women’s soccer club, is owned by the Sahlen family.
Every sports team marketing agreement is different, but there are some similar elements. In the agreement with Sahlen’s, the Bisons sell the company’s hot dogs as well as its ham and turkey deli meats at the stadium’s concession stands.
“Pretty much any product that they offer, we’re going to sell for them,” says Anthony Sprague, assistant general manager of the Bisons.
While the revenue generated by stadium sales is nice, Sprague is quick to point out that no food company that enters into a sports team agreement should focus on the amount of product sold.
“That part is such a miniscule number of what they do accomplish with these partnerships. The bigger part is that you’re taking that name recognition into the market,” he explains. “That’s the name everybody remembers. When you go to the supermarket for a hot dog, you’re going to get a Sahlen’s hot dog. If your family starts to eat something when you’re a kid, that transitions to what you eat when you grow up. It’s a long-term growth strategy when you do something like this.”
The agreement with the Bisons is particularly appealing to Sahlen’s. The company has a great market share in Buffalo, but its partnerships with the Bisons and its other teams will help spread that name recognition further and further, as the company grows its reach. The Bison’s status as an affiliate with the Toronto Blue Jays is another advantage.
“They want to expand into Canada, so with all the Blue Jay fans that we get down here, it’s a good fit for them,” Sprague adds.
On the other end, such agreements need to work with the sports team as well, and not just in terms of pure finances. The Bisons’ marketing department works closely with its food and beverage department to find agreements that will work for every part of the team.
“Years ago it would have been just about who has the most money, regardless of product costs, ease of getting the product, product quality. All those things would have been very much out the window,” Sprague says. “Through the years, we’ve done a great job of working together so that all those things matter – quality, pricing, not just dollars.”
In many instances, teams want to work with national brands. However, Sprague points out, there are benefits to working with smaller, local companies. Sahlen’s plant, for example, is about three blocks away from Sahlen Field, so if the team needs an emergency re-supply of hot dogs, a shipment is pretty easy.
“While we had to do our due diligence and talk with as many people as we felt necessary, we always were praying and hoping that this one was going to work out, because it’s a perfect fit,” Sprague says. “We’re owned by Rich Products, which is a family-started, family-owned business. Sahlen’s is family-
started, family-owned. Baseball, hot dogs. There were too many synergies to go for anyone else.”
Sprague recommends that a processor looking to enter into an agreement with a sports team be aware of the big picture. Successful partnerships are not based solely on units sold; it’s a long-term investment.
“You want to own that market, and you want to see your sales go up, not only at the ballpark but at stores too. That should be the focus, not specifically ‘One thousand cases, and this is how much I make off of that.’ That’s a little bit short-sighted,” he says.
The Bisons are looking forward to getting creative with the Sahlen’s partnership. Last season, the team offered fancy hot dog offerings like a mac & cheese dog or a Buffalo dog (with blue cheese and hot sauce). This year, Sprague says that the team will soon launch a “Name Your Hot Dog” contest. Fans will be able to suggest their own hot dog toppings, with the most creative entries winning prize packs from the team and from Sahlen’s. Some of the entries will be made available for purchase during Bisons homestands.
“Someone mentioned a peanut butter and jelly hot dog… it’s worth a shot I guess. But we’re interested to see what people come up with,” Sprague says.