When the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox moved to Texas to become the San Antonio Missions before the 2019 season, the void left in professional baseball’s highest-elevation stadium was filled by the short-season single-A Helena Brewers, who moved to Colorado from Montana.
From the outset, the process of naming the new era of baseball in Colorado Springs was fraught with peril. The Sky Sox, with their conservative name and conservative branding, had played in the conservative town for three decades, and fans were not sure why changes were taking place at all.
“We were up against some pretty tough odds and challenges in regards to making this realignment from Triple-A to short season and trying to educate the community on why that needed to happen,” said Chris Phillips, the team’s president and general manager. “It was not easy. There was a lot of negativity surrounding the whole thing.”
The team really wanted to shake things up. In an era when nicknames and logos are getting more and more outrageous throughout minor league baseball, the process of replacing a brand that was, to be blunt, kind of boring, with something more exciting did not get off to a great start. A name-the-team contest did not turn up the results the team was hoping for.
“I’m scouring these lists every day and looking for the lightning bolt idea, and it was just not coming,” Phillips said. “There were about 3,000 names, but a lot of, like, Pioneers and Mountaineers—just kind of boring. We were like, if we’re going to change, let’s really, really change.”
Finally, with the clock ticking and minor league baseball’s deadlines looming, the team started winnowing down possibilities. Staff members and other interested parties, including Jason Klein and Casey White of Brandiose, each brought their own 10 favorites to a meeting and they started voting. Round after round, one option, which was submitted by the guys at Brandiose, caught Phillips’ eye: Happy Campers.
“The reason I liked it was, I didn’t want to be an animal, I knew I didn’t want to be a mountain guy or something like that,” Phillips said. “Happy Campers to me was more of an attitude, like a state of mind, an emotion. That opens itself up to being able to tell all sorts of fun, cool stories.”
The name Colorado Springs Happy Campers was one of the five finalists, along with four others that Phillips describes as “placeholders”—the Punchy Pikas, the Throttle Jockeys, the Lamb Chops, and the Rocky Mountain Oysters. They already knew Happy Campers was the one.
Of course, the name that got the most attention in that list was the Rocky Mountain Oysters, a colloquialism for fried bull testicles. There was no way that was ever going to be the name, and if Jason Klein of Brandiose had not encouraged the team to put it in the contest, it may never have seen the light of day.
According to Phillips, Klein told him, “‘Just do it, dude.’ He’s like, ‘You know what? It’s not going to be the name. Just put it in there. It’ll cause a ton of stir,’ and it did.”
Once it was in the contest, Rocky Mountain Oysters started running away with it: “Rocky Mountain Oysters crushed in the voting,” Phillips said. “I mean, not even close. I think it was people wanting to see if we had the oysters to do it.” (While they did not have the oysters to adopt the name permanently, Phillips promises a “What Might Have Been” night in the next season or two.)
So the team started making plans to be the Happy Campers. Names were trademarked, sketches were drawn, and Brandiose started working on a brand with a color palette loosely based on the Colorado flag (“We kind of want the flag to explode all over the brand,” Klein said) and a character who would eventually become Toasty the s’more.
“As we were going down the Happy Campers concept, we were like, we need to something that’s happy, and we need to think about encapsulate camping,” Klein said. “Colorado Springs is a really fit community, outdoors, a lot of outdoor opportunities. How do you create the minor league baseball version of REI?”
The answer, of course, was anthropomorphized junk food.
“As we started getting to the next step of what does the creative look like, that’s when we first saw this very rudimentary marshmallow man that they drew,” Phillips said. “We all kind of stopped and were like, what is that? That’s a marshmallow? That’s kind of frigging awesome, man.”
As a character, Toasty walked the line between being kid friendly and having a certain grown-up appeal.
“Of course his name is Toasty. It’s a no-brainer,” Phillips said. “There’s some double entendre stuff there. It plays into adult humor. At the end of the day, our last line of defense is, it’s all about the kids, guys, and if you can’t get on board with this awesome super hero-looking s’more character, then go have your fun somewhere else.”
It wasn’t just all about the marshmallow, but the whole camping experience—especially the campfire, which is to camping what the minors are to baseball—the fun, laid back, social time with friends and family.
“The best part about camping is sitting around the campfire,” Klein said. “What do you do around the campfire that’s fun, that’s communal, that’s of the minor league baseball experience? It’s roasting s’mores. What if we did a s’mores character to embody something that happens when you are happily camping?”
So everything was going great. And that’s when the wrench to end all wrenches was thrown into the process.
“I get into work one day,” Phillips said, “and there’s an email from my owner, and the subject line says ‘Problem with Happy Campers.’”
The email was from Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Connor, who had been alerted to the presence of a marijuana dispensary called the Happy Camper dispensary in a town outside of Denver.
“We had seen that,” Phillips said. “A quick Google search pulled it up right away. I just never thought it was going to be a major issue.”
The guys at Brandiose were already deep into the process of developing Toasty and the other marks that would make up the suite, and they would have to do an about face.
“We kind of had to pull an audible,” Klein said. “We were a go with the Happy Campers, and then it was like, man, what do we do? How do we go from here?”
The team’s front office was devastated, and under pressure, they started working on alternative identities. Phillips hadn’t slept for a week when, to hear him tell it, he was wandering aimlessly through a Target, muttering out loud to himself about how he didn’t like the name Happy Campers anyway.
“You know how your brain works,” he said. “You’re like, that was the only name that was going to work, that was the best name ever, and it obviously wasn’t.”
In the course of muttering, he stumbled across the answer:
“I’m like, what’s another word for that kind of vibe or something?” he said. “And I’m like, Vibe! We had used the word vibe like a million times, but never in the context of it being a name.”
His internal monologue continued: “I’m like, Vibes is kind of a cool word. It’s got an energy to it. It’s very Colorado-y. It’s relevant to the region. I’m like, Good Vibes, no… Chill Vibes… no. And then I’m like, Rocky Mountain. ROCKY MOUNTAIN VIBES! So I raced back to the office, and I’m like, ‘What if we’re the Rocky Mountain Vibes?’ And it’s like dead silence.”
In spite of the stunned silence, the name encapsulated everything the team was trying to do. Most importantly, it fit with the visual esthetic Brandiose had established with the Happy Campers name, so Toasty could stay. It was different, it was intentionally vague, and it was representative of all things Colorado.
“If you look at the hype video that we did for the unveiling, there’s not a lot of baseball in it,” Phillips said. “It’s all about the hiking and the rafting and hanging out with your dog and going to a brewpub.”
The name was quickly embraced, not just by the staff, but by the guys at Brandiose.
“The staff was so into this esoteric idea of a feeling, and this idea of a vibe, and what it means, in Colorado Springs, this vibe,” Klein said. “They were into this idea, and they were trying to sell us, and at some point we were like, all right, if you guys are that passionate that you can take this idea and run with it into a whole brand, let’s do it.”
The team moved quickly and transformed the old Sky Sox stadium into their own. The merchandise store is called The General S’more, there are poop emojis above the restroom, and per Phillips, the visiting team is listed on the lineup board as the “Vibe Raiders.” (“We don’t want them raiding our good vibes, man,” he said. “The visiting team is always the Vibe Raiders.”)
With a season under their belt, the Vibes nickname, and especially Toasty the marshmallow, have been embraced by fans and the community at large—especially the kids who enjoy a freshly roasted marshmallow at one of the many roasting pits around the stadium.
Sales of merchandise went very well (I admit I contributed to those numbers) and baseball fans in Colorado Springs adjusted quickly to not going to games in chilly April and May at 6,000 feet of elevation. (That photo of my nephew above is from opening day in JUNE last year.)
The Vibes will enter the 2020 season with a full offseason to plan promotions and fully flesh out a brand that is already one of the more unique, fun identities in the game. I’ll be there with my roasting stick.