Baseball America is counting down to Opening Day by looking at the many different ways minor league franchises are getting ready for the season. For some teams, getting ready means adding a new scoreboard so the kiss cam and shell game can be viewed in high def. Or it’s a section of seats that needs to be replaced with tabletops, a wait staff and an offbeat theme that will entice fans to take in a game from a new vantage point. Or perhaps it’s a series of alumni bobbleheads or more fireworks or a new mascot or dollar beer nights (or all of the above). Regardless of what it is, chances are change is coming to a team near you this season.
Today's focus is on the Fort Wayne TinCaps, who have been one of the biggest hits in the Midwest League since moving into Parkview Field in 2009.
Adding another group-seating area certainly didn’t seem like an offseason priority for the Fort Wayne TinCaps. After all, fans already had six spots to choose from at Parkview Field—including a tiered picnic area, a party porch modeled after the Wrigley Field rooftop experience where the menu changes every few innings, a home run porch in left field with all-you-can-eat fare, a suite-level loft down the first-base line, a plethora of luxury suites ringing home plate and concourse suites at the top of the seating bowl.
But the team’s popularity has created an opportunity, and in mid-May the TinCaps will unveil a group area called the 400 Club in the batter’s eye of center field.
Exactly 400 feet from home plate, the retractable-roof club will feature a 75-foot-long wall of windows on top of the center-field fence and will accommodate groups of up to 150 people. Privately financed for more than $800,000, the 400 Club will feature tiered tabletop seating, a large bar area, flat-screen televisions, food service and an outdoor patio. It will be the ballpark’s only group-seating option where beer and wine is included with all-you-can-eat, higher-end food.
The 400 Club’s location is as unique as what it will offer. General manager Mike Nutter said the team had to work with Minor League Baseball officials to make sure the location would not affect batters, and that the team has looked at glass samples from several big league ballparks, including Wrigley Field, Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.
“We wanted to give people something a little different,” Nutter said. “For a lot of people, coming to baseball games is all about just burgers and hot dogs. And obviously we do well with burgers and dogs and peanuts and beer, but we also obviously do a lot more than that now.”
Nutter said the team had been seeking to add a “wow factor” to the four-year-old ballpark, which last season welcomed an average of 5,747 fans a game, second among Midwest League teams. With so much of the team's success coming in group seating, this seemed like a natural fit.
“The first four years have been amazing and probably exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Nutter said, adding that team officials are regularly asking each other “how do you stay relevant and hot and all that stuff . . . We felt like we just needed to invest back into this thing.”
It has been a hit so far, with 29 of 51 available dates sold after just a few days of being available. Nutter noted that the team is paying for the entire project, and he said for team owner Jason Freier “to return that to the community is a pretty cool thing.”
Fort Wayne has even booked a wedding reception for the 400 Club this season.
“(The bride) told me that her first date was at Parkview Field, her fiancé proposed to her at Parkview Field and now her wedding reception will be at Parkview Field,” Nutter said.
Two years ago Fort Wayne celebrated Opening Day by converting its scoreboard to 3-D. Last year the TinCaps kicked off the season by picking one fan to have a bobblehead made in her likeness. So what's in store for the start of the 2013 season?
On Opening Night (April 11), each fan will receive a scratch-off card when entering the ballpark. Certain cards will be instant winners, with those fans receiving a game-worn jersey from that night. One of those fans will also be selected as a $5,000 grand-prize winner.
The cash grab kicks off a busy promotional calendar for the team that won the Class A Bob Freitas Award from Baseball America in 2011. The team has 30 postgame fireworks dates scheduled, a variety of theme nights (including Wizard of Oz Night, Social Media Night and a Tribute to Professional Wrestling), and giveaways that include a Mat Latos bobblehead.
Keep the product fresh.
It’s a mantra recited by minor league operators in markets large and small, at ballparks new and old. For unlike their major league counterparts, the people who run minor league teams realize that much of their fan base considers the action on the field secondary to the hijinks and entertainment off it—from between-innings follies to children’s playgrounds to deep-fried delicacies at the concession stands.
For that reason, teams spend the seven months between the final out of one season and the first pitch of the next looking for ways to keep their product fresh—a new offering to keep fans and families coming to the ballpark.
It’s a universal offseason practice around the minors, though exactly what needs to be tinkered with is not so standard. For some teams it’s a new scoreboard so the kiss cam and shell game can be viewed in high def. Or it’s a section of seats that needs to be replaced with tabletops, a wait staff and an offbeat theme that will entice fans to take in a game from a new vantage point. Or perhaps it’s a series of alumni bobbleheads or more fireworks or a new mascot or dollar beer nights (or all of the above).
Regardless of what it is, chances are change is coming to a team near you this season. So with that in mind, we’re going to count down to the start of the season by looking at the many different ways teams have freshened up their homes this winter. We’ll kick it off with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, winners of the 2012 Double-A Freitas Award, who plan to introduce a trio of fan-pleasing additions to Arvest Ballpark, which will host the Double-A Texas League all-star game this June.
Eric Edelstein addressed one of his passions when he landed a job running a baseball team seven years ago. The Naturals general manager will cross another off his list when he opens a craft beer stand at Arvest Ballpark this season.
Edelstein considers himself a lover of craft beers, and he’s confident he isn’t alone. The new stand along the right-field line will put that theory to a test with 20 brews regularly on tap and another 40 in rotation. Core Brewing, the first craft brewery in Springdale, Ark., will partner with Northwest Arkansas as the naming-rights sponsor of the stand and its seasonal selections will the featured attraction.
Edelstein believes the beer garden will be a hit among the regulars at the ballpark but will also help the team tap into a younger audience.
“Microbrews are typically an under-35 thing right now,” he said. “It’s a way to add a wrinkle of fun for everyone who is here, but I’m also hopeful that it gives us a window into a demographic that we aren’t attracting as much right now. Our goal is to have as good a selection as any bar or restaurant in Northwest Arkansas.”
The Naturals will also unveil an area on the other side of the ballpark that they believe will appeal to fans of all ages—though perhaps with an emphasis on the younger crowd. The Naturals are converting a seldom-used concession area into a dessert-only stand, that just happens to be conveniently located next to the Kids Zone play area. And the Naturals plan to stock it with plenty of sweet-tooth selections, including featured items like include deep-fried oreos, chocolate-covered bananas, milkshakes, homemade ice cream sandwiches and Northwest Arkansas’ famous funnel dog—a hot dog wrapped in funnel-cake batter, fried and topped with powdered sugar.
“The vision of (the dessert stand) was sort of like the state fair,” Northwest Arkansas general manager Eric Edelstein said. “It’s not going to be healthy, but rather it’s a place to treat yourself.”
Arvest Ballpark debuted in 2008 and has held relatively steady at the gate, averaging 4,656 fans last season after bringing in 4,779 per game in 2011. Edelstein notes that the ballpark is as beautiful as when it first opened, "but it's not new." The two new concession areas will add a bit of variety to the venue.
"We know we can serve most of our fans through our concession outlets, so it gave us the chance to do something with some of our ancillary outlets that weren’t being utilized,” Edelstein said.
And lastly, Northwest Arkansas is adding a spot for those who like to get their game on at the ballgame. The team has converted one of its suites into a game room that can be rented out to groups on a nightly basis and comes stocked with a Wii playing on a big screen and a stand-up video game that features 70 different classic selections—think Galaga and Centipede—in high definition. A chalkboard will cover one of the walls so kids “can really have at it,” Edelstein said, “and have fun in the suite.” And for those interested in the action on the diamond, the game-room suite does overlook playing field.
“My biggest concern is making sure the staff doesn’t spend too much time playing Wii bowling in the afternoons,” Edelstein joked.
If you’ve been watching MLB Network lately, you’ve probably seen a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods. The commercial, which was filmed at Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif., is called “Every Pitch,” and if you haven’t seen it, here it is . . .
The commercial, which was created by the Anomaly agency and produced by @radical.media, strives to capture the drama on the field beyond simple home runs or diving catches.
A public-relations spokesman for Anomaly said that when the agency began working on the spot with Dick’s, the creators wanted to capture the subtitles of the game. They did that by paying attention to detail. The uniforms were designed by the company and the casting was authentic, including several players with professional experience. The spot was also filmed on 35mm film to give it a richer, throwback feel.
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