Dave Oster was busy in his office making preparations to turn Lake Elsinore’s ballpark into a shelter for community residents displaced by recent wildfires in Southern California when he looked out his window and saw the scenic mountains just miles in the distance’"which during the baseball season provide Storm faithful with breathtaking views’"were on fire.
With fires that ultimately killed seven and forced a half million people to flee their homes just 12 miles in the distance, the Storm’s president reluctantly scrapped plans for the California League affiliate’s latest community-service project, as locals in need of refuge headed indoors for safety at a local school. The team’s ballpark, The Diamond, was spared, yet Oster realizes that many in the area were not so fortunate.
It is such a commitment to the community that has defined the Storm’s success and turned Oster’s blueprint for building a winning minor league baseball club into much more than just words.
“If you are not involved in the community, then you don’t have a pulse within your own area and you’ll lose people in a hurry,” said Oster, noting that events like the wildfires show why the Storm considers itself more than just a baseball team. “We definitely want to be a community place that offers help and healing in time of need.”
The need to build a relationship with its fan base is particularly critical for Lake Elsinore, which is centrally located between San Diego and Los Angeles, and less than an hour to the Pacific Ocean. Fans have plenty of options for entertainment’"whether it be one of the three major league or two minor league teams within 90 minutes of Lake Elsinore or the plethora of outdoor activities that makes the area unique.
“With all of that competition, if you’re not ingrained in your own community you’re not going to last long,” he said.
In yet another example of the franchise’s community involvement, a minor investment in local youth baseball and Little League teams five years ago has turned into a national campaign and an unexpected marketing tool and revenue source for Lake Elsinore.
The team decided as one of its charitable projects to sponsor 15 or 20 local baseball teams’"a roughly $150 investment per team that included paying for uniforms, donating some equipment, offering reduced-price tickets and even providing pins that the players would swap with other teams at tournaments.
A front-office official decided to attach business cards to the pins’"which featured the Storm’s unique, piercing-eyes logo that proved a hit with kids’"and opposing parents and coaches responded with inquires about sponsoring their teams.
So the Storm added another 15 or 20 local teams the following season.
And then another 15 or 20.
Out-of-state teams sought Lake Elsinore’s sponsorship, and soon the Storm was sponsoring entire leagues.
The club now sponsors 350 teams’"including one in every state along with a team overseas in Germany. They’ve branched out to sponsoring soccer and football teams, including one on the North Shore of Hawaii. The team has set up its own press in-house and takes care of most of the Storm gear worn by youngsters around the country.
While their hearts were in the right place’"”It turned it into a big success story, sort of by accident,” Oster said’"the venture has also been pretty good for the team’s bottom line. Coaches and parents wanting to join the Storm Mania buy matching pullovers, caps and a variety of gear from the club.
“This was a good way to get our name out there,” Oster said. “Some of the financial benefit is when coaches and family members want to buy their own stuff. That is where you see some of the money coming back.”
A Green Approach
Lake Elsinore also may be the first professional sports team to use karma as part of its business plan. That’s how Oster describes the Storm’s ability to put on promotions intended to benefit the at-large community’"while bringing some publicity back to the team’"that ultimately end up being profitable ventures.
The Storm’s “Goin’ Green” event last season was just one of those perfect storms. The event was intended to help educate fans on ways to protect the environment in their everyday lives and featured exhibits ranging from ecologically safe clothing materials to organic foods to electric cars. The Storm’s mascot Thunder taught kids ways to save water and electricity while the team wore green jerseys made out of hemp.
“The thing we heard most from people is what can they do as individuals to help (the environment),” Oster said. “I was amazed at how many people stopped by for information.”
The event not only helped fans, but it also changed how Lake Elsinore will conduct business in the future as the franchise took its own message to heart. The team has made changes around The Diamond, from installing waterless urinals in the bathrooms to replacing sprinkler heads with a more efficient variety in the irrigation system around the stadium.
“We want to hold a promotion, but also make sure that we are doing the right thing,” Oster said.
The changes will cut down on the team’s utility bills, as will a plan to install solar panels to generate power for the entire stadium. In fact, Oster said team officials are convinced that they can create enough solar energy in sunny Southern California to sell a portion back to the power company’"another way in which doing the right thing could end up being profitable for Lake Elsinore.
“It’s one of those things, like with our Little League program, where we start out doing the right thing but there are also some benefits to them,” Oster said. “It’s a no-brainer: doing the right thing and putting money in your pocket.”The cost cutting comes at a particularly critical time for the franchise. The team reached an agreement with the city last offseason to take over operations of the 6,000-seat Diamond, a landmark opportunity to have full control of its in-house presentation, but also one that comes with considerable financial risks.
The stadium cost the city $800,000 a year to operate, and it will continue to contribute $300,000 a year annually for capital improvements. However the bulk of the financial responsibility now falls upon the Storm.
Not surprisingly, Lake Elsinore is coming up with creative ways to make better use of the stadium. The team added a video board in left field and refurbished the Diamond Club restaurant’"adding several high-definition plasma televisions and upgrading the bar’"so it can be used on off days and for special events, including weddings.
The team is resodding the field this offseason along with other physical upgrades to keep the 15-year-old ballpark looking new.
“Every time I walk people through and tell them the stadium will be 15 years old, they are amazed,” Oster said. “With city efforts and our efforts, we have put a lot of time and energy into making the stadium look good. It’s the first thing people see, and you have to give fans the perception that you have a nice house to play in.”