“To be with the Nationals is a great thing for us. We hope it turns into a great thing for them despite the couple geographical challenges there are, but this re-brand is all about the Grizzlies and Fresno,” Braverman said Monday, the last day the team had an orange-and-black look it adopted before the 2008 season. “It is about doubling down on our local culture and doesn’t have anything to do with big league affiliation. The fact that we happen to be going through this the same offseason where we’re breaking into a new affiliate is simply a coincidence.”
This, Braverman and Grizzlies President Derek Franks noted, is not to diminish the Grizzlies' excitement for becoming the Nationals' Class AAA affiliate. But it is important for the team, nestled in a city without a major professional sports team in a state chock full of them, to keep a calculated distance from its parent club. The Grizzlies have had three major league affiliates in the past five years — the San Francisco Giants from 1998 to 2014, the Houston Astros from 2015 to 2018 and now the Nationals — so it has become hard to sell an identity that is tied to any one of them, let alone a team that is across the country.
The Grizzlies were plotting major brand changes months before a shuffling of Class AAA franchises led to their new partnership with the Nationals, who had the Syracuse Chiefs as their affiliate before that team was bought by the New York Mets for $18 million in October 2017. The re-brand includes new logos, colors and a set of four uniforms highlighted by cream-colored tops and red pants to wear at home, all of which was announced and showcased at Maya Cinemas in Fresno on Tuesday. Any similarities to the Nationals are an added bonus and, as the Grizzlies insist, a product of pure chance.
“We’ll always sell both, and that’s something we’ve learned how to do as we’ve not been a Giants affiliate,” Franks said of using the local experience and major league team as marketing tools. “And I hope that we’re with the Nationals for a long, long time. Changing affiliations is not really great for our business, you know? Continuity is. But the continuity that we can control is making sure the Grizzlies belong to Fresno first and foremost.”
It made a lot of sense, way back in 2008, for the Grizzlies to go all in on their affiliation with the Giants. They had been connected for a decade. AT&T Park was attracting more and more fans in the Bay Area. The proximity of the two cities, roughly 200 miles apart, meant there was already a concentration of Giants fans in the area that had only grown since the Grizzlies started playing there. Immediate hindsight, once the Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, made the move look even smarter.
But Franks and Director of Marketing Sam Hansen, both Fresno-area natives, felt the Grizzlies were leaning too heavily on the Giants and not connecting enough with the city. Even before switching to the Astros, they introduced Fresno taco promotions and “Growlifornia” as a marketing slogan and made the grizzly bear a more prominent element of their brand, most notably by waving a big bear flag. When they became the Astros' Class AAA affiliate, they thought it may upset longtime fans if they overhauled their look while in transition. Plus, the Astros also wore orange and black, so there wasn’t a pressing need for a shake-up.
A new ownership group took over in February, and the opportunity to re-brand as Fresno’s team, with no aesthetic connection to the Astros or Giants, crystallized. That led the Grizzlies to the logo, colors and uniforms they rolled out this week, right as their two-year contract with the Nationals is beginning. The Grizzlies still plan to market the baseball experience to fans; their past includes prospects-turned-stars such as Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey of the Giants, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman of the Astros, and next perhaps Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia and whoever comes through the Nationals' pipeline after them. But that will not be placed ahead of molding the Grizzlies as Fresno’s team, not again, even if the red may look familiar.
“We’re still selling the fact that we take our baseball seriously,” Braverman said. “But without the affiliate in California, it’s important for us to continue to double down on the fact that this is something for Fresno to be proud of.”