Just because you’re the only team in town doesn’t mean you’re the only game in town. When it comes to choosing a location, companies must think broadly about what constitutes competition.
Just ask Steve Malliet, president and co-founder of the Normal CornBelters The CornBelters are a minor league baseball team that plays in the cities of Bloomington and Normal, Illinois: a metropolitan area of 130,000 people that is--you guessed it--right in the middle of the Corn Belt. How the team, which started playing in 2010, chose Normal is a good example for many businesses looking to enter a new market. To corrupt a baseball metaphor, the CornBelters looked for a hole in the market in which to put their infield.
In the 20 years he’s worked in minor league baseball, Steve has often traveled the country in search of good markets. He looks for a city that is big enough to support a team but doesn't yet have one. He is not interested in cities that can support multiple teams.
To launch the CornBelters, Steve partnered with Mike Veeck. (That name will be familiar to baseball fans. Mike’s father is Bill Veeck--onetime owner of the Chicago White Sox and other teams who was celebrated both for his crazy stunts and innovations to the game.) “I’ve been a part of building new ballparks around the country,” Steve told us. “Mike called and said, ‘I’ve got what I think is one of the last good markets in the Midwest for minor league baseball, and you need to come check it out.’”
Steve and Mike spent some time in Normal, and things looked good. There was a sizable population--including a lot of baseball fans--and no other teams. The two pulled together the funds to build a 7,000-seat stadium and started a team with 10 full-time employees handling front-office operations.
But just because the CornBelters were Normal’s only baseball team didn't guarantee they could reliably fill a stadium. As Steve explained, “It’s not about the baseball in minor league baseball. Everybody thinks you have to have a winning team. Minor league baseball is about family fun. We’ve got the best value in town here. A family of four can come out for $20 and have a great evening.”
So how do the CornBelters attract non-baseball fans to join their families at games? Steve and Mike took a page from Bill Veeck’s playbook: it’s about showmanship. In addition to watching the game, attendees enjoy between-innings promotions, bounce houses, kids' events, and other diversions. Then there’s the CornBelters’ secret weapon: the women’s restroom. The stadium was closed the day we took the tour, so we did get to visit the facility in question, and it was certainly impressive. A velvet couch. Fancy sinks. Granite floors. Of course we don’t have much to compare it with. So we’ll have to take Steve’s word that it is the “world’s greatest.”
The CornBelters aren’t worried about another team moving in on their turf. Normal and its environs are economically healthy, but the area is too small to support two teams. With its successful brand and existing stadium, the CornBelters have created a formidable barrier to entry. But Steve does have to worry about all those movies, video games, mini-golf courses and other non-Cracker-Jack-centric bidders for his customers’ time and attention. It will help if the CornBelters keep winning. More important: they can never stop entertaining.
The Lesson: Look for new markets where there are holes but not ones big enough to attract direct competitors. And don’t overlook indirect competitors--businesses pursuing the same eyeballs and wallets, even though they are not in your industry.