Don't tell Monty Hoppel that west Texas is only football country.
Sure, the stadium next door will fill up with 15,000 fans for a high school football game, proving that Friday Night Lights in Odessa, Texas, is no work of fiction. But after 22 years running the Double-A Midland Rockhounds, Hoppel has laid out a blueprint on how to develop a following of your own in the Texas League's smallest—and perhaps football-hungriest—market.
"I kid when I go to speak at (local) events," Hoppel said. "I challenge them a bit. I tell them that I think baseball is king. That when we can draw 4,000 people a night for 70 nights a year compared to one football game a week, I think baseball is along stride and in a way baseball could be bigger than football.
"I don't win the argument, but at least I get them thinking and realize that we are a sports community, because a lot of other sports are put on in our area."
Though the locals may chuckle at Hoppel's passion, they certainly could not argue with his results. By integrating themselves in the community through a variety of projects, and by opening the gates to a clean and entertaining venue, the Rockhounds have developed a following that has turned the team into one of the Texas League's steadiest clubs.
Consider this: The combined population of the Midland-Odessa market is a little over 250,000 people. In 2010, the Rockhounds drew 285,188 fans to the ballpark. That figure is no fluke; the Rockhounds attendance has steadily grown since drawing 276,380 when Citibank Ballpark debuted in 2002.
"We try and take a major league approach in a small market," Hoppel said. "Even though we are in the market we are in, we try and be the best franchise we can be and prove this can be a baseball town as well as a football town."
Hoppel has kept himself busy with more than just baseball. He operated a minor league hockey team owned by the Rockhounds for several years and now helps market and operate the youth sports complex next door.
"Monty does an awful lot for that franchise," Texas League president Tom Kayer said. "Plus he's a nice guy. He's never changed. He always has a smile on his face."
The Rockhounds place in the community was not nearly as solid when Hoppel, 49, came to town 22 years ago. The Idaho native, and Gonzaga graduate, had spent the previous five years running a ballclub in Tucson when he was essentially transferred to Midland. The owner sold the Rockhounds six months later to Miles Prentice and Bob Richmond, who kept Hoppel on board.
"This shows what happens when you get good ownership and some good corporate support, great mayors and city council that really understand what a minor league baseball team means to a community," Hoppel said.
A New Standard
Like nearly every great minor league team, the Rockhounds have a great facility supporting them. And ultimately, that has enabled the team to stay in town. Minor League Baseball's facility standards amendment of 1991 essentially forced Midland to replace its deteriorating ballpark or risk losing the team.
"The stadium was old and you wondered if there was going to be a minor league baseball team there in the future," Hoppel said.
In 2002, after 11 years of being grandfathered into the facility standards, the community responded by agreeing to fund a new ballpark and football/soccer stadium complex through a sales tax. The new facility, which cost just under $40 million (with ownership contributing $3 million) was built on the west side of Midland, about six miles closer to Odessa than the old ballpark, which helped increase the team's market.
The new facility, which Hoppel says the team is on pace to pay off well ahead of schedule, has opened doors to the community. The Rockhounds staff are as active as ever in the community, but the variety of attractions that Citibank Ballpark offers has made Rockhounds games a local destination.
Luxury suites, a wraparound concourse that allows fans to watch the game while in line for concessions, outfield berm seating, a playground and kids' wiffle ball field are among the highlights of the new ballpark.
"A ballpark in a small community is like a town-hall meeting every night," Hoppel said. "The new ballpark has definitely become a gathering place that has more amenities to the point it has become a benefit to fans of all ages."