The Indianapolis Indians have bucked a significant trend around minor league baseball over the past five seasons. As most teams, and the industry as a whole, saw a decrease in attendance during the economic downturn, Indianapolis' turnstiles were spinning at a record pace that climaxed in 2013 with the Indians drawing a minor league-best 637,579 fans.
From 2009-2013, Indianapolis' average attendance increased 9.5 percent—from 8,202 to 8,980—the biggest gain among International League teams during that span. Overall attendance grew by 88,027 fans, the biggest increase among all Triple-A teams.
Adding a degree of difficulty is the competition the team faces for sports fans. Indianapolis is a major league city, with the NBA's Indiana Pacers and NFL's Indianapolis Colts each playing just up the road from the Indians' Victory Field.
The secret to the team's success is a connection to the community through charity programs and events, a commitment to selling and promoting the franchise, and maintaining and improving 17-year-old Victory Field at a level that keeps the ballpark experience fresh.
"If you walk into that ballpark right now, you would think it was built in the last couple of years," International League president Randy Mobley said. "They spent a lot of money on maintenance and cleanliness. They sell that and make that a part of their message to their community."
That dedication includes a school curriculum program that provides discounted tickets for students in elementary school and middle school.
"It's a curriculum that has some real meat on the bone—not just how many feet are between first and second base," Indians general manager Cal Burleson said. "A lot of schools and teachers will download it and use for their kids."
The team reaches out to its military community with a "tickets for troops" program in which fans can donate unused season tickets and team sponsor Eli Lilly and Co. makes a matching donation. The Indians sponsor Little League teams and the local Big Brother/Big Sister chapters.
The team also promotes continuity and is led by a veteran front-office staff. Max Schumacher joined the team as a ticket manager in 1957 and has since risen to president and chairman of the board. Burleson has been with the Indians since 1975, also initially serving as ticket manager. Their senior leadership provides an expertise on what works in their community and around the minors.
"Max and (vice president) Bruce (Schumacher) and Cal have been there forever," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said. "They undoubtedly finish each other's sentences they've been together so long. They are the heart of things that go on there."
The award is also personal in many ways for Burleson and his colleagues. Burleson worked with Bob Freitas, the longtime operator who helped build the industry before dying in 1989. "This award is named after a gentleman who dedicated much of his life to the betterment of minor league baseball. It is not an overstatement to say that his impact continues to be felt across the entire country."