Minor League Baseball is playing a key role in Uncle Ray’s growth strategy.

And if sales are any indication, the strategy appears to be working.

Sales of the potato chip brand rose 14.6 percent in the year-ended Jan. 22, easily beating the 1.51 percent increase in the overall potato chip category, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.

If that wasn’t enough, Uncle Ray’s was the second fastest growing product in the category behind Ruffles Sabritas potato chips (17.37 percent).

Uncle Ray’s in 2016 became the official potato chip of MiLB with category exclusivity at the league level. A key component of the partnership centers on MiLB’s ability to integrate brands into the ballpark experience—sales rights at concession stands.

MiLB announced the partnership on National Potato Chip Day (March 14, 2016). By Opening Day, more than 60 ballparks were serving Uncle Ray’s.

Below, Kurt Hunzeker, MiLB vice president of marketing strategy & research, discusses how Uncle Ray’s uses the sponsorship as a B2B and B2C marketing platform, how the partnership benefits MiLB clubs, and other topics.

How Uncle Ray’s activates the partnership. The MiLB partnership is a cornerstone of Uncle Ray’s growth and market penetration strategy. To show its commitment to MiLB, Uncle Ray’s put the MiLB logo and its official designation on millions of product packages.

MiLB provides both scale and depth in our national partnership activations. For clubs that didn’t already have a pre-existing partnership in the potato chip category, they provided digital signage, PA announcements and video board displays to promote Uncle Ray’s and its official designation.

In markets where Uncle Ray’s wanted a deeper activation to boost awareness – i.e. more touchpoints, retail pass-through, etc. – we added more marketing assets, such as the “Uncle Ray’s Way Play of the Day” game content, multiple sampling nights and live radio spots during game broadcasts. These target markets also agreed to exclusively sell Uncle Ray’s potato chips inside their respective ballparks.

In our first year with Uncle Ray’s, the market selection was based on geographic areas where Uncle Ray’s had existing retail partnerships – primarily near Uncle Ray’s headquarters in the Detroit/Great Lakes region and throughout the Carolinas. The MiLB partnership and marketing activations helped fortify these existing retail relationships by driving MiLB attendees and fans to those stores to purchase Uncle Ray’s.

But the big focus for the partnership was leveraging Uncle Ray’s chips being consumed in MiLB ballparks by millions of fans – MiLB drew more than 41 million in 2016 – to not only gain increased shelf space with existing retailers, but tap into new markets Uncle Ray’s was targeting as well.

Based on key learnings last year, we have definitely seen a greater buy rate by our clubs for Uncle Ray’s delicious tortilla chips, and expansion into areas long dominated by other potato chip brands, namely in Texas, the South and out West.

The league’s take on potato chips as a sponsorship category. Group sales are a big part of our clubs’ business each season. With some meal plan included in it, MiLB ballparks purchase pallets upon pallets of certain types of products for each homestand including hot dogs, buns and potato chips/tortilla chips. With this in mind, we set the business development strategy in 2015 to specifically target brands that were “endemic” to the MiLB ballpark experience.

Our clubs were spending significant amounts of money on both potato and tortilla chips, and only a handful of them had what you would consider a strategic partnership with their potato chip provider. The potato chip business was primarily a vendor relationship, and we felt that a dynamic brand could seize upon the opportunity to capitalize on our unparalleled scale – we have 160 clubs, covering 75% of all Americans – and truly own one of the food staples in our ballparks all season long.

To win the clubs’ business, Uncle Ray’s sent boxes of its chips to all 160 clubs’ front offices so everyone could taste how delicious Uncle Ray’s potato chips are. This alone converted clubs, as did the significant operational cost savings our clubs experienced because Uncle Ray’s was far more affordable than what the clubs had been paying their previous provider.

We calculated the cost savings to be more than 30 percent for the clubs.  It’s tough to beat a brand with the best tasting product and the best prices in the marketplace.

How the partnership came about. I was actively engaged with a couple of potato chip brands when my old boss from Rawlings Sporting Goods, Robert Parish, called me and told me about his new position working for H.T. Hackney, a privately-held company that owns a number of brands, include a regional potato chip company based in Detroit.

Robert always has progressive visions about where brands can go, and clearly saw potential for Uncle Ray’s to really make a big splash because of its great taste.  He called me in late 2015 inquiring about opportunities to access both MiLB’s ballparks/concessionaires (B2B) and MiLB’s fans (B2C) as a springboard for Uncle Ray’s sales and marketing plan.

As they say, the rest is history.