Putting fans in seats for a baseball team called the Sock Puppets might seem to be a tall order, for even a seasoned marketing professional. But at the age of 25, Clemson alum Anderson Rathbun has quickly earned his marketing stripes by rebranding and resurrecting a former minor league baseball team and he’s winning awards in the process.
Anderson, a ’17 marketing graduate from the Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business, is the general manager of a Burlington, N.C., team that develops top college prospects hoping to one day make it into Major League Baseball.
After full-time and intern stints with minor league teams in Florida and Ohio, Anderson assumed the GM position in Burlington in 2020 about the time Major League Baseball was reorganizing its minor league system. When it appeared the Burlington team was going to be on the chopping block, Anderson’s former boss in Florida bought the franchise and handed him the task of resurrecting the organization.
“The Burlington team was a Rookie League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and after Major League’s reorganization of its minor league system, we had to pivot and create a new direction for this franchise to keep it a viable entity in the community,” the Oak Harbor, Ohio, native said. “The Royals became the Sock Puppets, now an Appalachian League development team for the top college talent in the country.”
One of the first orders of business was renaming the team and its mascot.
“The idea of calling us the Sock Puppets started out as a joke from the owner, but as we looked at our market and that textiles were a big part of the community, it made sense. So, we started putting a marketing plan together, and things worked out perfectly.”
Anderson said he didn’t go into the team’s rebranding without a good amount of knowledge and credits his marketing classes at Clemson with providing the know-how needed to navigate the team’s brand revamp.
“It was a textbook rebranding from Delancy Bennett,” Anderson said of the Clemson assistant professor of marketing and former Carolina Panthers marketing executive. “He taught sports marketing and one of the classes was rebranding. And, just about all my marketing classes had a component of social media strategies, which became an important part of our marketing plan.”
Anderson’s execution of that marketing plan got results and recognition. The Sock Puppets won the Appalachian League’s promotional awards for the team with the best marketing strategy and promotional exposure.
“Our social media presence was first and foremost in that plan. We grew our Twitter account by 70 percent and have a very strong exposure rate. As a result, we set a franchise record in season ticket sales and drew about 45,000 fans for our two-month, 27-game season.”
The marketing plan also involved promotional nights and in-game entertainment, all of which contributed to putting fans in seats at Burlington Athletic Stadium.
“We have a Socket Puppet band – the ‘Sock and Soul’ band – that plays rock music pre-game, which creates a different atmosphere for a baseball stadium. And a local sock manufacturer created Sock Puppet socks for a promotional night. One of our events, sponsored by a furniture manufacturer, has fans sling-shooting the socks into a dresser drawer with a prize of $500,” said Anderson who was also nominated for the league’s executive of the year award.
Entering the third year as the team’s GM, Anderson also credits his time at Clemson as developing him professionally, which was a huge confidence boost given his role in the Burlington community.
“Being part of Delta Sigma Pi, the business school’s honors fraternity, really helped me develop my networking skills and professionalism,” he said. “I was a 24-year-old when appointed GM and I came in feeling confident dealing with business and political leaders in the community because I felt my professional skills were beyond that of others my age.”
Anderson sees his career remaining sports-focused and says he’s dedicated to remaining in Burlington for the foreseeable future. He’d like to see that future include internship opportunities for Clemson students, like what he experienced with his home-state Toledo Mud Hens the summer of his sophomore year.
“When I was with the Daytona, Fla., (Tortugas) ball team, professor (Bill) Tumblin helped me bring some summer interns into that program. Similarly, I’d love to bring some Clemson blood into the Sock Puppets pipeline. And I believe that will happen. Staying close to members of the Clemson Family, like professor Tumblin, has really helped in my career and I think it’s important to give back by helping others from Clemson get set up for their future through an internship.”
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