Stretching across the plains of the midwestern United States, you’ll find a part of the continent defined in many ways by its most prominent crop. Last year, four states produced more than a billion bushels of corn each: Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota.
“They refer to it as the Corn Belt,” said Steve Malliet, founder, president, and general manager of the Normal Cornbelters, an independent baseball team that plays in Normal, Illinois. “We’re right in the middle of it right here, Corn Production, USA.”
When they debuted in 2010, the Cornbelters seized on the importance of the corn industry, in part because it really is super important (“We happen to be in the richest corn-producing area in the entire world right here—at least it is in the United States,” Malliet said), and also because the second option seemed even more boring.
“By far the agriculture business here is our number one,” Malliet said. “The economy here is wrapped around that—that and insurance.”
So the team set about creating a team identity based on the corn industry that would accomplish some specific goals.
First, Malliet said, “We wanted to do something a little bit different, that wasn’t the same as everybody else.”
This was accomplished with a logo created by Chris Henwood of JanSport that is part ear of corn and part Bill the Cat from Bloom County. “People have noticed the googly eyes, and it’s different,” Malliet said.
Second, they didn’t want to hurt any feelings.
“What we didn’t want to do was offend anybody in this process,” Malliet said. “We tried to be careful. We worked with the Illinois Corn Growers Association to make sure that we didn’t do that, that we weren’t poking fun at anybody or the industry because we have a lot of respect for it.”
Finally, they wanted it to sell. Independent baseball teams don’t have access to some of the resources that affiliated teams benefit from, so a strong brand is essential if you want people to take notice.
“Minor league baseball does a great job of pushing the logos and marketing them,” Malliet said. “You’re pretty much on your own when you’re marketing your logo here.”
That said, the Cornbelters were almost not the Cornbelters. They toyed with the idea of going by the name Nuts (“Normal Nuts” has merit as both a team name and a medical diagnosis), but decided against it because the Single-A Rockies affiliate Modesto Nuts was already using it. (And the other option of Nutz with a Z to avoid a conflict, was terrible.)
Then came the name-the-team contest that ended in controversy and had to be scratched when a certain late-night television host’s fans got hold of it. One of the options in the online name-the-team contest was the Normal Coal Bears, ostensibly a reference to the city’s ties to coal mining. The team’s fans would be called Coal Bear Nation, which sounds an awful lot like the nickname ascribed to Stephen Colbert’s fan base.
“One of our partners came up with the idea, and thought it would be fun and kind of a lark,” Malliet said. “It ended up being pretty serious when, all the sudden, we’ve got a million votes for Coal Bears. It seemed that the votes were coming in at 3,000 per minute or something like that.”
While Colbert himself did not encourage fans to vote for Coal Bears, outlets like Deadspin, the forum on this very website, and an organization that called itself the Normal Coal Bear Alliance got hold of the story and advocated for the name.
“We let everyone know, obviously this isn’t right, and we’re going to make sure that name of the team is a legitimate name that people around here will know and respect,” Malliet said.
That name, of course, ended up being the Cornbelters. It’s a name that has achieved the goals the team set out for, which Malliet confirms every time he sees a person wearing his team’s hat during his many travels.
“They always strike up a conversation. If you’re wearing a Yankees hat, that doesn’t always strike up a conversation,” Malliet said. “What I love about it is that, like minor league baseball, it’s different and it’s fun. That’s what we try to be for our fans.”
For an independent minor league baseball team, the struggle for branding success is an uphill battle (even in the corn fields of Normal, Illinois, where there are no hills). The ability to take a topic that might not set fans’ imaginations ablaze from the outset and turn it into one of the sport’s more noteworthy brands is a considerable accomplishment.