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MLB: Sahlen Field hits the big time

Jon Campbell
Gannett

Jon Campbell

Gannett

Buffalo’s minor-league baseball stadium is home this season for the Toronto Blue Jays, which will put the meat company in the national spotlight.

When the Toronto Blue Jays play their “home” games this year, they won’t be playing in a stadium named after a telecommunications giant, a major bank, or big-time corporation like many Major League Baseball teams.

The arrival of the Blue Jays in Buffalo has brought some major league exposure to the Minor League Bison’s field and to park sponsor Sahlen Packing Co.

Instead, the Jays will play ball at Sahlen Field, a 16,600-seat stadium named after a fifth-generation, family-owned Buffalo company that has spent more than a century making a ballpark staple: hot dogs.

Blocked by the Canadian government from playing in Toronto because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Blue Jays will play their 2020 home games at the Buffalo ballpark, home to the team’s top minor-league affiliate.

The Sahlen Packing Co., a meat company headquartered in Buffalo since its founding more than 150 years ago, purchased the naming rights to the ballpark in 2018.

The price of the 10-year acquisition was never disclosed, though Buffalo Business First reported at the time it was north of $350,000 a year. But this much is for sure: Sahlen’s, as the company is known, got more than it bargained for.

Instead of a summer of hosting Buffalo Bisons minor-league baseball, Sahlen Field will be home to at least 28 Blue Jays games featuring the likes of the New York Yankees, New York Mets, and Boston Red Sox. No fans will be allowed to attend, but each game will be broadcast on regional television networks at the least.

In other words: The naming rights Sahlen’s purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars annually will draw similar exposure this year to the naming rights purchased for millions in other cities by Citibank, Coors, and other top-level brands.

Chris Allphin, a senior vice president with Van Wagner, a marketing firm that specializes in stadium naming-rights deals, called the Sahlen’s deal a “huge bargain” and “very lucky.”

“Let’s assume it’s under half a million dollars a year,” he said. “The Blue Jays will play 30 home games there, give or take. The most important part is they’re going to get broadcast and Sahlen Field will be in the spotlight.”

Sahlen’s traces history back to 1869

The Sahlen Packing Co. was launched in Buffalo in 1869. The company is best known for its deli meats and hot dogs, which are found in grocery stores and on grills all over western New York.

Now, the company says Sahlen’s products are available in stores in 35 states. Fortuitously, the company recently launched bulk ordering online, where 10 16-ounce packages of tender-casing hot dogs will set you back $69.90 plus shipping.

The Sahlen family is no stranger to sports naming rights deals in western New York.

From 2011 through 2015, the company had its name on Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester, a soccer facility that hosted the since-moved Western New York Flash, a professional women’s soccer team then owned by Joe Sahlen, president of the Sahlen Packing Co.

Sahlen’s has deals with the Bisons, Watkins Glen International, the Florida Panthers of the NHL and the Charlotte Knights minor-league baseball team to ensure their hot dogs are served during races and games.

The company also owns Sahlen Sports Park, an indoor, multi-field facility in Elma, Erie County, where the Flash used to practice.

None of those deals, however, compared to the exposure Sahlen’s is due to get this summer, even if the Major League Baseball season is already shortened because of COVID-19.

The company issued a statement in July saying it was “honored” to have its name on the ballpark.

“Few people from the Sahlen family would have guessed … that our name would be associated to this extent with that of a Major League Baseball team’s home,” the statement read. “But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible.”

Blue Jays, opponents promise big exposure

Until a few games are in the books, it’s unclear how prominently the Sahlen’s name will be seen on television broadcasts.

Photos posted by the Blue Jays on the team’s social media accounts show TD Bank, not Sahlen’s, will have its logo plastered on the signage behind home plate—which Allphin called the “best position in sports” because it’s on screen for enormous stretches of baseball games.

But the Sahlen’s name does remain displayed on the center-field scoreboard, the photos showed.

The Blue Jays are an attractive team when it comes to naming rights, Allphin said.

They hail from Toronto, home to one of the largest metropolitan areas in North America. And two of their divisional foes, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, are among the most popular baseball teams in the U.S.

“I always talk about them as kind of the unsung superhero in baseball, because they play to a massive market in Toronto but nobody ever counts it because it’s not an American market,” he said. “They play in the (American League) East, which is the most covered division by far. The exposure is huge.”

Ballpark is 32 years old

Sahlen Field in Buffalo first opened as Pilot Field in 1988. It was among the first in a run of retro ballparks in downtown locations. The designer, HOK Sport, went on to design Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, which is famed for its influential style.

Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered remarks and threw out the first pitch at Pilot Field when it first opened on April 14, 1988. At the time, the Rich family — still the owner of the Bisons and Rich Products, the Buffalo-based frozen food giant—was trying to secure a major-league franchise to play at the field, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful.

“You’re going to have the best minor-league stadium in the United States of America,” Cuomo said on the stadium’s first day. “But one thing is clear: Buffalo never settled for minor leagues. Buffalo is a major-league city.”

Now Buffalo is a major-league city, at least for a summer.