The Freitas Awards, named after longtime minor league baseball ambassador Bob Freitas, are awarded to honor minor league baseball clubs that show sustained excellence in the business of minor league baseball. Franchises must have been in operation for five seasons before they’re eligible to win.
In late May, anyone would have understood if the Northwest Arkansas Naturals general manager had paced the ballpark’s concourse for hours with a scowl.
The team lost its top two prospects to Triple-A Omaha, slugger Wil Myers and righthander Jake Odorizzi, leaving the cupboard pretty bare. But GM Eric Edelstein, thanks to his staff’s preseason work, had a measure of optimism. And by season’s end, the Naturals had drawn 321,254 fans—the second-best attendance mark in their five seasons in the Texas League, despite the club finishing dead last in the overall standings.
“We have changed how we do what we do 100 percent,” Edelstein said. “We were very heavy season tickets and walk-ups with a little bit of groups the first year. And groups have (become) a year-over-year grower for us.”
Group sales became key to the Naturals in 2012, as the club averaged 4,656 fans over 69 openings while playing in a market where the University of Arkansas and high school football dominate the headlines when the calendar flips to August.
The Naturals’ Arvest Ballpark sits between Fayetteville (home to the University of Arkansas) and Bentonville, where WalMart headquarters is based. It’s not in a downtown, but instead sits just off an interstate and surrounded by cow pastures.
The Naturals have overcome particularly challenging weather each of the past two seasons. Spring showers led to a late-summer drought in 2012, one year after the Naturals overcame the worst outbreak of tornadoes the region had experienced in years.
“It seems as if they have battled Mother Nature more than most teams and shake it off and keep going,” Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner said. “It seems like they are always batting something. But at the end of the year, they have done a good job and you never hear them whine or complain.”
The Naturals have benefitted from a partnership with the Royals, whose farm system has been among the best in the game in recent years. The team’s radio broadcaster also brings credibility, as Steven Davis is the son of Bob Davis, who calls Kansas Jayhawks basketball and for years called Royals games. While those attractions help build a fan base, Edelstein points to the club’s group efforts within the community as a factor that continues to drive growth.
Group sales manager Mark Zaiger began reaching out before the 2010 season to organizations that were under the radar, such as school bands and church choirs, and join their fund-raising efforts with the Naturals’ group sales. The way it works is simple: A group purchases a block of tickets at a discounted price, resells them for full price and keeps the difference.
“We’ve had fund-raisers where one single group last year sold over 800 tickets on a Monday night,” Edelstein said. “That’s a game-changer as far as getting people out here.”
The Naturals maintain a presence in the community with their “street team” even when there is a game at Arvest Park. For example nearby Bentonville—home to WalMart headquarters—hosts a once-a-month, downtown block party of live music, food and events designed for adults and children. The Naturals didn’t miss one this past season.
The idea was sparked five years ago when a local group asked the Naturals to attend its event, which drew 2,000 children. Edelstein had to decline because of a game that evening.
“That just stuck in my craw, that just because we’re playing doesn’t mean the world stops,” Edelstein said. “So we’ve got to find a way to create some kind of autonomous activity that doesn’t have anything to do with the games themselves.”
The ballpark atmosphere is top of the line, too, playing well in a cozy stadium with terrific sightlines and where the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and the Famous Chicken are annual staples. Among the ballpark’s specials is a Sunday deal in which kids under 12 get a free hot dog, chips and a drink. Mondays are $1 hot dog nights, and Thirsty Thursdays have expanded from $1 beers to also $1 peanuts and $1 mozzarella sticks.
Texas League president Tom Kayser pointed to one of Edelstein’s inventions: the funnel dog, which is a corn dog dipped in funnel cake batter and then fried. And ultimately it is the ballpark experience the team sells when talking to potential clients.
“When we make a call and say, ‘Hey can we come out and talk to you about the ballpark?’ people are willing to hear us out, even if they have no interest in baseball,” Edelstein. “I love baseball. Don’t get me wrong. I’m doing this because I love the game. But we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about what’s going to happen on the baseball side.
“It’s the old baseball saying—you plan on going 0-70 and try to make it as fun as you can.”