Dale Owens was on hand when Louisville Slugger Field debuted to a sellout crowd on Opening Day 2000. The Bats vice president and general manager has been at the ballpark for just about every game since and takes particular pride in two things:
• The ballpark, which sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, is in even better condition today than when it opened 11 years ago.
• And the ballpark Owens and his staff meticulously maintain is the reason the International League franchise has drawn no fewer than 600,000 fans in each season since it opened.
"It still looks like it was built last year," Owens said with a little chest-puffing in his voice.
The Bats embrace the family-friendly business model that the minor leagues have long touted as the reason for a run of record-breaking attendance that ended only when the economy bottomed out in 2009. Provide a clean facility with affordable ticket prices and plenty of attractions for families, and ultimately the action on the field is secondary. And yes, this philosophy includes Louisville, even when the team fielded MVPs Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton in 2007.
"The way we market this team, sometimes baseball is like fifth or sixth on the list we promote as part of our product," Owens said. "The ballpark is what really is attractive to people. We have a wonderful facility to come to . . . If you come here tomorrow (in the middle of the offseason), you could play a game on our field. It is still cut to play on."
The ballpark may be the attraction, but it doesn't take care of itself. The Bats did not simply build the $27 million ballpark and hope that the fans would come. Instead the team invests time, attention and money to make sure Slugger Field keeps bringing the fans out.
This attention includes a series of upgrades. In 2008, the Bats added a 42-foot video board to the outfield wall. Two years ago they built a shade structure above the seats down the right-field line to create a more comfortable spot to watch the game. And last year Louisville put a roof over the picnic deck in the outfield, adding shade to a spot that had been sun-soaked and allowing the team better use of the area for group outings. This offseason the team enclosed and added air conditioning to a lounge that can accommodate 150 people, making it usable year-round.
"We didn't take the new ballpark for granted," Owens said.
Aside from a new ballpark, though, fans find plenty of familiar faces in Louisville. Owens is entering his 25th season with the team. Assistant GM Greg Galiette has passed on opportunities elsewhere to stay with the Bats for 28 years. Director of stadium operations Scott Schumaker has been in Louisville 15 years.
"Unlike major league baseball, the one-to-one relationship with the fans is so important at this level," Owens said. "You see the same people coming to games year after year after year. There is a real fondness that grows between the local minor league baseball team and its fan base if you do it right. They buy into what you are doing and we get a lot of built in equity with how we run our business."
Louisville, which won a Freitas Award in 1999, take a slightly less traditional approach towards promotions. The team offers few giveaways, but instead invests in entertainment. Each Saturday night game features a circus act, something "straight out of Vegas," Owens said, that ranges from acrobatics to feats of strength. "Our fans get to see something . . . that they wouldn't expect to see at a regular baseball game."
The team also works with a local indy-rock station to identify top local bands to perform on one of its party decks.
"Louisville has had the same core leadership there for some time. They've continued to operate at a very a high level and they've done a wonderful job of keeping that ballpark sparkling clean," International League president Randy Mobley said.
Corpus Christi Hooks
Giving as much back to the fans in the community as they bring to the ballpark is one of the missions for the Corpus Christi Hooks. For Ken Schrom, the president of the Hooks, repayment is one of the highest priorities of the organization.
"We are, for six months of the year, asking people to spend their hard-earned dollars to come and watch baseball and buy our concessions and buy our souvenirs," Hooks president Ken Schrom said. "I think to be a good community partner you have to give something back, and that's what we try to do.
"We feel that it's kind of our duty."
Texas League president Tom Kayser says Corpus Christi accomplishes the goal he expects of all teams—to have a positive impact on the people in their regions. "They are high-profile members of the community," Kayser said. "It's good business both from a standpoint of people coming in, but it's also their civic responsibility to be a part of the community. Certainly the Corpus Christi Hooks do that very well."
Whataburger Field, home of the Hooks, appeals to the community for myriad reasons. The ballpark sits on land right on the shipping channel, with the Harbor Bridge towering over the field. The location's heritage surrounds the park, with the remaining roof from an old warehouse, antique cotton presses, and the permanently docked USS Lexington aircraft carrier in the outfield. Occasionally tankers will pass by and honk their horns as sailors get a glimpse of games.
Not only was Whataburger ranked in the top 10 minor league ball parks by Baseball America last year, but minor league news called it the best venue in North America over the last two seasons, and the league's president thinks Whataburger gives plenty of motivation for people to go and catch a game.
"It's just a fun place to go," Kayser said. "It's got great sightlines, and there are a lot of things to do in the ballpark. They've got a pool, they've got entertainment areas in the outfield, and they've got different kinds of seating venues for whatever your choice may be."
The stadium is family friendly with a kids zone, an interactive playground, a youth baseball diamond, a basketball court and a rock wall. There are additional areas with a pool and spa, and rocking chairs in left field to watch a game from.
Though attendance has dropped from an average of 6,852 in 2008 to 5,976 in 2010, Schrom believes the Hooks are still thriving but coming out of their honeymoon stage and losing the novelty that the team had when it began in 2005.Those numbers are good for second-best in the league, and Kayser said the Hooks follow the minor league prototype that should allow them to have continued success.
"We are a very cost-effective choice for entertainment," Kayser said. "You can get tickets for our games at a lower cost for most places than you can go to the movies."
Though Corpus Christi baseball games are the primary use of the park, they are not all that Whataburger Field hosts.
"We play a lot of college games and high school games here," Schrom said. "We open up the ballpark to a lot of non-profits and we have fundraisers. We do a lot of different things at the ballpark."
The goal of the Hooks is to positively impact the community of Corpus Christi and the surrounding areas, and they have done so with programs like Field of Dreams, helping to rebuild ball fields, Miracle League, giving children with disabilities a safe place to play baseball, and many others.
Whataburger also hosts events and game nights dedicated to charities like the American Diabetes Association, Hurricane Relief, March of Dimes, and American Cancer Society, just to name a few.
Because the organization is so actively involved in the community, the Hooks were a clear selection for Baseball America's 2010 Double-A Bob Freitas Award, and Kayser believes it was well-deserved.
"Corpus Christi is an outstanding choice among a number of teams in our league," the Texas League president said. "To have [it] chosen as our league representative certainly is a feather in our cap."The award is especially meaningful to Schrom, having met its namesake, former minor league operator Bob Freitas, early in his career in El Paso. "He was one of the innovators that put all the crazy, wacky things in place in minor league baseball," Schrom said of Freitas. "He did things the right way. He wanted people to have fun."
Though the location hasn't changed since City Stadium first opened in 1939, not much else remains the same in the ballpark that has long hosted Lynchburg's rich baseball history.
The once outdated stadium that fielded previous Lynchburg teams like the Hill Climbers, Shoemakers and Grays, is now a modern facility complete with 14 luxury suites, indoor batting cages and in-stadium souvenir store.
And ultimately, these changes ensured that Lynchburg baseball would not simply become history.
"It's like having a new facility," veteran Lynchburg general manager Paul Sunwall said of the 2003-04 ballpark renovation that replaced everything but the playing surface and seating bowl.
The project also completes Calvin Falwell's dream of an established baseball team in Lynchburg, which he had when he organized a group of investors to purchase the club in 1966. The core of the group remains in place (Falwell only recently retired as team president at the age of 90), as does their business model: Plow all of the team's profits to help build an operation that will make the community proud.
The team's investors, made up predominantly of local leaders, has never taken a dividend—the stockholders have never cashed out even a penny, Sunwall said.
"If anything, a number of years ago they had to kick in money to keep us going," Sunwall said. "They're business people in the community who have a love of the game and an interest in the community . . . Their main concern is to keep baseball in Lynchburg."
That shouldn't be much of a worry any longer. The community that has long supported the Hillcats responded to their new digs. Attendance has increased roughly 25 percent since the renovation, culminating in a team record 164,328 in 2009. Not bad for a club that challenges Kinston for the smallest market in the Carolina League.
"They are nothing if not long-term consistent," Carolina League president John Hopkins said of the team.
That consistency carries over to the front office. Sunwall has been with the team 31 years, assistant GM Ronnie Roberts just finished his 20th year in Lynchburg and head groundskeeper/salesman Darren Johnson has been a Hillcat for 18 years. Each are also active members of the community—Sunwall previously served as president of the Kiwanis Club and Roberts is currently president of the Lions Club—and the team helps support a long list of charities.
"We've got a good group here that is happy to stay in Lynchburg and enjoy what we do," Sunwall said.
Lynchburg will welcome a new affiliate in 2011. The team parted ways with the Reds after one year this offseason and will welcome the Braves to town after their 10-year run in Myrtle Beach came to an end after the 2010 season. Sunwall believes hooking up with a popular regional team like Atlanta should only further boost attendance.
Idaho Falls Chukars
A perfect July night out in Idaho Falls might include dinner, entertainment and time shared with other members of the small community. Taking in a Chukars game at Melaleuca Field has become the best and easiest way to accomplish all three at an affordable price.
Idaho Falls general manager Kevin Greene knows the organization has a lot to offer, and plenty of people to offer it to.
"We're the only professional sports team in all of eastern Idaho and we're aware of that," Greene said. "We've got a captive audience throughout our area. People are looking for something to do. We tend to be the first place they think of when they want to host a group or employee outing, or simply to go out for the night during the summer."
The Chukars managed to keep fans coming in 2010 despite ending the Pioneer League season in last place with a 27-49 record. Idaho Falls drew 91,551 fans, good for third in the league.. Overall, Idaho Falls saw its attendance dip roughly 8 percent in 2010 after boosting it by nearly 5 percent in 2009. And while many minor league teams struggle with turning a profit, the Chukars consistently manage to do so.The GM thinks that time has been on its side, assisting with the accomplishments.
"We've been doing this a long time and I think we've found the right formula for success in Idaho Falls," Greene said. "I think we've established a good reputation for ourselves in terms of offering good service, good value, and a good overall experience for the fans and sponsors alike."
The experience is just one aspect that Greene has been working on since he joined the club in 1993. Pioneer League president Jim McCurdy thinks that Greene has figured out what works, and says his longstanding familiarity has also helped.
"The organization enjoys continuity of ownership and management personnel that enables the club to maintain consistency of operations and community relationships to maximize its potential," McCurdy said.
The club is active with charities like the Idaho Food Bank, United Way, Habitat for Humanity and Relay for Life. Contributing to the community is just the right thing for the organization to do, Greene says.
"It's important that people know we like to give back as much as we like to encourage people to come support us," he said. "Especially in these economic times, people are more conscientious and aware of that, and we need to be an important part of our community, especially in our small town.
"We're a real small community by professional baseball standards and people in this town know who supports various fundraising type efforts in the town. People know, Greene said."
Idaho Falls not only continues their contributions to charities and other organizations year in and year out, but for the upcoming season they've added an initiative. During half of the home games in 2011, Melaleuca field will showcase a not-for-profit entity. It will give an opportunity for fundraising and raising awareness, all while enjoying a Chukars game.
The biggest game-changer for Idaho Falls has seen in terms of being able to assist the community and offer everyone who comes to the ball park a great experience has been the installation of a new field and added amenities in 2007. Through the hard work of dedicated staff members, the Chukars have been a part of the community for many years, but Greene knows that the new facility has, which helped bring in new fans.
"We've got the venue where people are proud to bring their valued customers and employees out to the ballpark and treat them to a nice evening of professional baseball and good food service and good hospitality," he said. "Everything is new and clean and it looks good, something that our old facility lacked." McCurdy credits Greene with broadening the ballpark audience by taking a concept already widespread in baseball and molding it into an asset for Idaho Falls.
"Kevin was one of the first to utilize group barbecues as a major part of the marketing design," McCurdy said. "Many years ago most clubs sold group tickets and if possible would include a barbecue or catered event as an ancillary to the game, but Kevin's operations early on attempted to sell the concept of the group barbecue as a means of attracting fans and organizations to enjoy the game on a daily basis."
Though Greene doesn't think he's reinvented the wheel with any of his ideas, he admits that he just comes to work each day challenging himself to consistently improve the business.
"When you've been doing this a long, long time, every year you've still got to come to the ballpark every day and say, 'How can I make things better?' If you're not doing that, and if you're not making a point to make things better every day and every year, where's the challenge in what we do?"
— Alexis Brudnicki