2012 Triple-A Freitas Award Winner: Lehigh Valley IronPigs
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.
It may seem hard to believe now, but success was anything but guaranteed when Joe Finley and Craig Stein bought a baseball team and moved it to Allentown, Pa. For even though the veteran minor league operators were building a new downtown ballpark that they promised would rank among the best in the minors, the Lehigh Valley area was hardly uncharted territory, and locals skeptical about supporting another team could simply point to the memory of a half-built stadium on the outskirts of town as a reminder of past failures.
Chuck Domino, the team president who had already helped build a winning franchise in nearby Reading among other places, spent the 18 months before the team ever took the field selling the idea of minor league baseball to local residents.
"I remember during the course of the year and a half that I was involved up there before the stadium was built, I would go speak to groups and you could feel all the skepticism in the room," said Domino, noting that in the recent past, local residents had experienced only the semi-pro Allentown Ambassadors and the failed ballpark project for the independent Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds in nearby Williams Township. "If they didn't come down to Reading, they weren't really tuned into minor league baseball and how it has transcended the game with promotions, a fan-friendly environment and expanded concessions. They didn't understand what they were in for."
Coca-Cola Field did turn out to be one of the best parks in the minor leagues, and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs have become one of the most successful teams not just in the International League but in all of the minors. It has been five years since Finley and Stein purchased the Ottawa Lynx, moved them to one of the smallest markets in Triple-A and handed the keys to Domino and general manager Kurt Landes. The IronPigs have since topped the minor leagues in attendance in each of the past three seasons while playing in a ballpark that now serves as an industry model. The team's business practices have become equally influential, including a nickname that raised eyebrows when it was introduced but has helped drive the craze of teams adopting wacky monikers to appeal to their youngest fans.
But what keeps IronPig faithful flocking to the ballpark—Lehigh Valley was the only team in the minors to average over 9,000 fans a game in 2012—is rather simple.
"We make sure the experience never gets dull," Landes said. "For us, it's always have something new and different."
Dull is truly a four-letter word for Lehigh Valley management and something they have avoided by incorporating the IronPigs brand in every facet of their operation, while providing an over-the-top approach to fan entertainment in a ballpark that offers a variety of experiences depending upon your seat location.
Lehigh Valley strives to create an entertaining environment before fans ever get to their seats. Parking attendants—which in Lehigh Valley are called "porking attendants"— greet fans in a variety of fun outfits and perform dances and skits as they guide cars to parking spots. Little things, like filling the air with bubbles as fans come through the gates and making sure all children get free helium balloons as they leave the ballpark, help create an atmosphere Landes describes as a "fun zone." So do the team's seven mascots—all pig-themed—that include originals Ferrous and FeFe as well as newer additions Chris P. Bacon, Hambone and Barb E. Que.
"The changes we do to the ballpark and the ways we keep coming up with new ideas to promote and engage with the fans is the biggest reason we have continued to be successful," Landes said. "For us, it's always having something new and different."
The biggest draw of all for fans may be the ballpark itself. Built for $50 million before the 2008 season, Coca-Cola Park provides a variety of vantage points to take in a game. Dugout suites behind home plate are closer to home plate than the pitcher's mound. The ballpark also includes a club lounge and 20 suites behind home plate, two party porches, a picnic area and a tiki terrace in the left-field corner, several standing-room only drink rails along the concourse, and lawn seating beyond the center-field wall—whose occupants the team calls their "pigs in a blanket."
The group-seating areas are certainly the hottest tickets in town. Landes said the team sold out all of its suites and group-seating options before the start of the 2012 season and has already sold about 75 percent of those seats for 2013. In fact, the ballpark has been such a hit that the team is increasing its capacity with an additional 1,000 fixed seats, bringing the total to 9,200. Some of these will be in a new tabletop area called the Bacon Strip overlooking the bullpen—which in Lehigh Valley, of course, is called the Pig Pen.
"We try to take every available spot in the ballpark and be creative with it," Landes said.
The IronPigs have hardly sat on their investment in Coca-Cola Park. Each offseason, they plow money into additions or improvements, whether it be new seating options, a new scoreboard, improved concessions or additional vendors on the concourse.
One of the recent improvements was allowing fans to order from the concession stands through mobile devices. They receive a message when their order is ready and avoid lines by collecting it through a "bypass lane" at the concession stand.
Lehigh Valley has taken the mantle of minor league attendance leaders from the Sacramento River Cats, who led for nine straight seasons from 2000-2008. The IronPigs were also the first minor league team to land Coca-Cola as a title sponsor, and the first to televise all of their home games—another way they have bucked conventional wisdom.
"The old-school thinking was if you televise all of your games, no one will come (to the ballpark)," Domino said. "We've proved that wrong. We look at is as a three-hour advertisement every night. (Fans) want to come out and see what all the hoopla is about."