Stable and committed are two adjectives that aptly describe the Missoula Osprey franchise in the Pioneer League and its ownership, the Ellis family. But they’re more than just words, they’re qualities that have been put to the test since the franchise came to Montana eight years ago.
The Ellis family’s involvement actually goes back even further than that. They bought the team in 1992, when it was in Lethbridge, Alberta. (The expansion Arizona Diamondbacks signed their very first player-development contract with the franchise in 1995, and the franchise team remains affiliated with Arizona to this day.)
At least one member of the Ellis family has been involved in minor league baseball in one capacity or another since 1984, when Judy Ellis, the wife of team president Mike Ellis, took a job cooking burgers for the Lodi Crushers of the California League. She is the Osprey’s executive vice president. Their son Matt is the team’s vice president and general manager, and his wife Shelly is the vice president of finance and merchandising.
So wherever they have been, the Ellises have become known for fostering a family atmosphere among their employees, resulting in uncommon front-office stability.
“We are a family organization,” Mike Ellis said. “We treat the entire organization as family. We really believe in running it like a business, but focusing on family.”
The Ellises moved the team to Missoula in 1999. The move seemed like a natural, but it would require patience before starting to pay off.
The Osprey were told their new ballpark would be completed two years after their arrival. The park was completely paid for with private money, raised by the non-profit organization Play Ball Missoula. It was Play Ball Missoula that sought a minor league baseball franchise to bring to the city, and that originally contacted the Ellises about moving their franchise there.
Unfortunately, construction of the Osprey’s new park was delayed due to issues of site selection. In the meantime, the team was forced to continue playing at its temporary facility, Lindborg-Cregg Field. Lindborg-Cregg was built as an American Legion field and was not up to the standards of minor league baseball. The Osprey expanded the facilities and generally did what they could to get by, but the situation was undeniably inadequate. Concessions were sold from portable stands, and players had to dress in temporary trailers.
“We were kind of nomadic,” said Matt Ellis. “We had to move in and out of the ballpark every day.”
Getting their park completed was not the only challenge the Osprey faced when they arrived. Missoula is also the home of the University of Montana and is known as a college town with its sports scene dominated by the “the Griz.” Though it could be daunting for a minor league team to make headway under these circumstances, the Osprey have carved out a niche for themselves.
The Osprey’s attendance at Lindborg-Cregg generally hovered around 50,000-55,000. But the team turned the corner when it was finally able to move into its new park, Ogren Park at Allegiance Field, in 2004. Attendance jumped from 51,236 in 2003 to 64,942 in 2004, even though the park opened in an incomplete state. Attendance has continued to grow as the facility become more complete each year, and with the park completed at last this season, the Osprey shattered their attendance record by drawing 86,881 fans.
Continuing To Build
While waiting for their ballpark to reach its completion, the Osprey built a complete roster of entertainment for fans, utilizing many of the kinds of promotions expected from minor league teams. One promotion they’ve become known for is their dubbing the sixth inning “the peanut inning.” If the Osprey score a run in the sixth, the team throws bags of peanuts to the crowd.
“We focus on the whole product,” Matt Ellis said. “The experience is more than a baseball game. We give our fans reasons to come to the ballpark.”
Missoula also has developed a large season ticket base, especially for a franchise of its size, and has dedicated itself to group and corporate ticket sales. One of the last pieces of Ogren Allegiance Field was a group party area that the franchise expects will be booked throughout the season.
The team finally put the finishing touches on Ogren Allegiance Field just four months ago. Now that they know the team is finally settled in for the long haul, this is the first time the Ellises have been able to sit back, take a breath and think about what they can really do. They also hope be able to reach the 100,000 attendance mark, a major accomplishment considering where they started.
“We realize working in minor league baseball won’t get you rich,” Matt Ellis said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Both the community and team have shown faith in each other. It’s a relationship the Ellises take great pride in, and they couldn’t be happier with where they are today.
“Sometimes easier isn’t better,” Mike Ellis said. “Now we have the best. What we have is something really special.”