A few minutes after the end of a recent ECHL hockey game, Griffin Germond of Gorham found himself bidding on the pungent, sweat-soaked jersey worn by the home team’s goaltender.

“I’m totally over the moon about this Maine Wild Blueberries Night,” he said later, walking down the concourse of Cross Insurance Arena while clutching Connor LaCouvee’s No. 40 for a winning bid of $550. “It attracts a lot of people who don’t normally come to a hockey game, because it’s not the Maine Mariners, it’s the Wild Blueberries.”

In line with a growing national trend, two of Portland’s minor league sports teams have decided to undergo temporary name changes. On March 9, the Mariners became the Wild Blueberries. In late June, the Portland Sea Dogs will play a baseball game as the Maine Whoopie Pies.

Underlying the temporary rebranding are two themes: fun and money. The wackier the new name, the more people talk about it. The more people talk about it, the more interest in the team. Print that wacky logo on shirts and hats, and fans will gobble it up.

Wild Blueberries Night turned out to be the second-biggest of the season for the Mariners in terms of merchandise sales, behind only opening night when professional hockey returned to Portland for the first time in more than two years. And that doesn’t even count the nearly $12,000 the team pocketed from the post-game auction of the Blueberries jerseys, which sold for between $425 and $800.

The attendance of 4,933 ranked third among the Mariners’ 29 home dates, and was well above the season average of 3,012.

Heidi Parker, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Southern Maine, said temporary name changes allow teams to create excitement and strengthen connections with their fans.

“For many minor league teams,” Parker said, “what they ‘sell’ is less about the on-field/-court product and more about the ancillaries – do you have a fun and enjoyable time going to a game?”

A fun name change works when fans can identify with the new moniker. Wild blueberries and whoopie pies are iconic foodstuffs in these parts.

“So those in Maine or visiting Maine feel an affinity for those products,” Parker said. “Having the team celebrate those products creates a fun and memorable night – an enjoyable emotion which makes you like the team more and maybe plan to attend again.”

So Steamed Cheeseburgers or Hot Wieners may work well in Hartford or Pawtucket, but they would be a gastric disaster in Portland, and good luck selling those hats and T-shirts.

“Unless the public is excited, feels connected, or identifies in some way to the promotion,” Parker said, “the gear is not going to sell.”

A WHOOPIE PIE WHOPPER

When the Triple-A baseball Syracuse Chiefs spent a day as the Salt Potatoes in 2017, merchandise sales were roughly equal to the combined total of 15 home dates in May, according to Sports Business Daily. This season, 72 teams will take part in the second annual Copa de la Diversion (Fun Cup), organized by Minor League Baseball, to temporarily rebrand themselves with a Latin American flavor. Hence, Mariachis de Nuevo Mexico (Albuquerque Isotopes) will take on the Abegas de Salt Lake (Salt Lake Bees) on April 6.

Portland’s opponents in the June 21 game at Hadlock Field are the Reading Fightin Phils, which two years ago became the Reading Whoopies for a day. Yes, Pennsylvania and Maine each claim to have invented the chocolate cake sandwich with the creamy vanilla filling. Each state celebrates a Whoopie Pie Festival, with Maine’s scheduled for the day after the promotional game, June 22, in Dover-Foxcroft.

“For us, and for many of the teams that do it, it gives you another connection to your community,” said Geoff Iacuessa, the Sea Dogs president and general manager. “The early returns as far as excitement from staff and fans have been very good. There’s a lot of energy behind it.”

SEA DOG MERCHANDISING

A perennial crowd favorite at Hadlock is the Field of Dreams game, held during the last weekend of the regular season, when the Sea Dogs don vintage Portland Eskimos flannel uniforms and emerge like ghostly apparitions through cornstalks strung in front of the centerfield fence. They always retained the Sea Dogs name, however, even through a succession of themed jerseys for particular promotions.

“Every time we’ve done a specialty jersey, it’s been a tie-in to charity,” said Iacuessa, pointing to the pink for breast cancer or blue for prostate cancer awareness and fundraising campaigns.

Those jerseys were auctioned off and the proceeds have been given to charity. Iacuessa has yet to decide whether to do likewise with the game-worn Whoopie Pie jerseys or keep them for use in the future.

The Sea Dogs are mainstays in Minor League Baseball’s annual Top 25 listing of merchandise sales. Seven different Whoopie Pie items are currently on sale online and in their souvenir store at Hadlock Field, including hats, T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts and jerseys.

The Maine Red Claws, secure in their basketball identity, will remain the Maine Red Claws, although a few other G League teams – Northern Arizona Rodeo Clowns, Erie Pepperoni Balls – decided on the one-game makeover.

“We know it’s an attention-getter and it’s a way for those die-hard fans to buy the special merchandise,” said Red Claws spokesman Evans Boston, “but it hasn’t gotten past the discussion phase with us.”

ALL IN ON THE ‘BLOOBS’

Wild Blueberries was the fourth themed jersey of the season for the Mariners, who also took the ice as Captain America of Marvel Comics fame, Double Dare from the Nickelodeon network and the original orange-and-black Maine Mariners, the AHL franchise and first tenant of what was then known as the Cumberland County Civic Center in 1976-77.

Detail photo by Joe Carpine

The Mariners went all in on the Bloobs, as they came to be known on social media during a Name the Team contest, changing their name to Wild Blueberries on the scoreboard and on their Twitter handle. Average attendance for the four themed-jersey nights was 4,744. Of course, playing on Saturday nights as part of a five-game promotional package that also included Opening Night helped.

“I look at anything from a marketing/business perspective,” said Ryan Peters, the Wells rapper better known as Spose and a staunch proponent of Blueberries over Mariners. “Like, how are you going to sell the most T-shirts? And it is clear that the Maine Wild Blueberries is the more absurd, and thus newsworthy and marketable, of the nicknames.”

Germond, the 22-year-old from Gorham who bought LaCouvee’s jersey, spent $385 for a Ty Ronning jersey on Nickelodeon Night but was an unsuccessful bidder for any of the Mariners throwback jerseys, the most expensive of which went for $1,050 and belonged to goalie Brandon Halverson, who has since been promoted to AHL Hartford.

“In the game-worn jersey world, specialty jerseys like this dominate,” said Germond, whose collection now stands at 28. “Some of them are investments. Some of them are just, I like the jersey. I want it.”

Adam Goldberg, Mariners vice president for business operations, worked for four other minor league teams – two in baseball and two in hockey – before coming to Portland. He said merchandise sales typically account for 5 percent to 8 percent of annual revenue, while ticket sales account for 70 percent to 75 percent of revenue.

He said the temporary name change offers an opportunity for fun and creativity. That the team won three of the four games with the specialty jerseys, and earned a point in the standings by reaching overtime in the other, didn’t hurt, either.

So maybe the Bloobs aren’t gone for good. And maybe the other finalists not chosen – Puffins and Lumberjacks – might come to life if only for a day.

“People certainly got excited about it,” Goldberg said. “The overwhelming feedback I got from fans is that it was a fun night, but they were certainly glad it wasn’t our full-time name.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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