Reinventing The Team
Greensboro finds new fans with new park
In 2004, Greensboro president and general manager Donald Moore was doing double duty. In addition to coordinating the franchise's daily operations, Moore was also preparing to move the team into a new stadium.
The Grasshoppers (then called the Bats) were surviving, drawing under 200,000 fans each year to a decaying War Memorial Stadium, which had been hosting minor league games since 1930. The Grasshoppers made First Horizon Park—later renamed NewBridge Bank Park in November of 2007—their new home the following year. With a 30-foot wide concourse, an outdoor sports bar, a state-of-the-art videoboard and a seating capacity of 7,499, the new stadium was well-equipped to accommodate the increased demand that Moore anticipated.
But the change of scenery meant more than a simple upgrade in facilities. It was a move that offered the hope of reinvigorating a Greensboro community that was lacking passion for America's pastime.
"There wasn't anything sexy about baseball in Greensboro, let's put it that way," Moore said. "There wasn't a lot of energy, there wasn't a lot of excitement in the community."
The new stadium certainly generated a renewed interest, however, as fans have been coming in droves since the gates opened. The Grasshoppers drew over 400,000 in their first season at the new ballpark and have increased attendance annually.
"The community has wrapped their arms around us and continue to support us more each year," Moore said.
The changes in Greensboro go beyond enhanced facilities and amenities. In September of 2006, the club bolstered on-field operations with the addition of Miss Babe Ruth, a well-trained black Labrador Retriever who serves as the Hoppers' bat girl for two innings each game and is beloved by Grasshopper fans.
"She started in the summer of '06 retrieving bats, and she'll take baseballs to the umpires," Moore said. "People just love this dog. It's a phenomenon how crazy people are about her."
Moore confesses that he knew the fans would take a liking to Miss Babe Ruth, but I had no idea fans' adoration would grow to this magnitude. On most Fridays and Saturdays, Miss Babe Ruth is stationed at the front gate greeting fans and having pictures taken with them. After each game, she runs the bases whether the team wins or loses—"She's doing a victory lap for someone," Moore said.
Greensboro is training Miss Babe Ruth's true blood brother, Mister Yogi Berra, to assist with gameday operations in 2009.
For all the interest that the Greensboro community has taken in the Grasshoppers, the franchise has happily reciprocated.
In 2006, Greensboro donated $100,000 to Eastern Guilford High in the aftermath of a fire that severely damaged the school. This past season, Greensboro donated $100,000 to the Hope Project, a partnership of 40 local organizations whose objective is to keep children from joining gangs. The club is also in the midst of another $100,000 project supporting the Triad Sports Foundation. Additionally, the Grasshoppers align with one specific charity each season. This past season, Greensboro supported the Association for Retarded Citizens and hosted a Challenger Clinic in which the team played baseball with mentally handicapped children a few hours before an evening game.
Greensboro also capitalized on its selection as the site of the 2008 South Atlantic League all-star game. The players' autographed all-star jerseys garnered more than $6,000 on Ebay to benefit the Greensboro United Way.
To say that the franchise has made its presence felt in the community is an understatement. The club has become reputable for spreading its goodwill among many different community organizations, as well as providing affordable entertainment to Greensboro citizens.
From the in-game promotions to the on-field host to Miss Babe Ruth, the team brands itself as a provider of "hoppin' fun", according to VP of baseball operations Katie Dannemiller.
"First and foremost, we know that the fans are there for entertainment above and beyond minor league baseball," Dannemiller said. "I believe in changing that entertainment."
In creating the Grasshoppers' fan experience, the franchise has borrowed from contemporary forms of entertainment, orchestrating contests and promotions that spoof popular television series such as "Deal Or No Deal" and "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?" (adapted as "Are You Smarter Than A Grasshopper?").
"We look at the entertainment around us and we try to pick apart the pieces and do it our way," Dannemiller said. "It's just a matter of surrounding ourselves with good employees and creative people that are passionate about entertaining 6,000-plus fans every night."