The Long Island Ducks have some problems that many teams only dream about.
The team has put a cap on the number of season tickets it sells to make sure there are enough tickets available for group sales and 10-game minipacks. And they really want fans to know to come on down; even if 6,100 tickets have already been sold at the 6,002-seat stadium, they’ll find a way to fit you in, they promise.
“We’ve got an educational problem,” Ducks owner Frank Boulton said. “We sell standing-room tickets. And after the third inning or so you can go to an usher and they will seat you (in an unused season-ticket seat). The perception is that it’s a sold out event. We’re trying to tell them, ‘Hey guys, you can always get a Ducks ticket.’ I don’t think we’ve ever turned anyone away at the ticket window.”
It’s a problem most general managers would love—having to worry about convincing fans that a sellout doesn’t mean you should give up on coming.
There aren’t a lot of teams around the country that are going to feel sorry for the Ducks. For nine years the Ducks have been one of the top teams in independent baseball and the cornerstone of the Atlantic League. Annually they’re the top cumulative draw in independent baseball averaging more than 6,000 fans per night, a number that would rank near the top of the nearby Double-A Eastern League. And they succeed on the field as well, winning four consecutive division titles.
For that standard of excellence at the gate and on the field, the Ducks are our 2007 Independent Team of the Year.
A Dream Come True
The Ducks success is a dream come true for Boulton, a life-long Long Island resident who had always dreamed of bringing minor league ball to his hometown. He quickly found it wasn’t going to be easy.
Boulton had owned the Prince William Cannons and Albany-Colonie Yankees and had served as a director of the Eastern and Carolina Leagues, so by the time he got around to working on fulfilling his dream, he had a hefty amount of experience in what it takes to run a minor league team.
What he didn’t have was a way to bring his Albany-Colonie team to Long Island, which falls within the territorial rights of the Yankees and Mets. So when the Mets denied approval for the affiliated team’s move, Long Island was left without baseball again.
That one decision ended up spurring the development of the Atlantic League and, it can be argued, the arrival of the Staten Island Yankees and the Brooklyn Cyclones.
Without an opportunity to bring affiliated baseball to Long Island, Boulton and Peter Kirk ended up developing the idea for the Atlantic League on the back of a napkin. Unlike other independent leagues, which largely stocked their team with players who went undrafted or were released from the lower minors, the Atlantic League decided from the start to set a higher salary cap, a longer season and an emphasis on bringing in former big leaguers.
“We wanted to use the model of the old Pacific Coast League for a new league in new facilities,” Boulton said.
It’s an approach that has worked in Long Island. Fans have seen former stars, like Mark Whiten, Donovan Osborne, Bill Pulsipher, Armando Rios and Pedro Borbon, don Ducks garb. And this year the team attracted national interest with a roster that included 13 former big leaguers and four former all-stars, led by former Mets second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo.
And the fans have responded. Boulton knew that the demographics of the island (with nearly 3.1 million residents) would likely make baseball a hit, but thanks to the Ducks knack for promotions and ticket sales, it’s been a longer-running sellout than the best Broadway musical. Long Island has drawn more than 400,000 fans every season since the team debuted in 2000.
Always At Work
Hitting on the island’s hunger for baseball with a new stadium made selling out easy in the early years, but teams don’t sustain that success unless they work at constantly reinventing themselves.
“There’s not really a downtime around here,” Ducks general manager Michael Pfaff said. “We’re competing with the movies, not the Mets or the Yankees.”
The Ducks have a giveaway nearly every night. Parking is a free—a novel idea in an area where parking your car often costs as much as filling it with gas.
The team works all offseason to sell more than 2,000 season tickets and has managed to turn the opening of group sales into an event. They’ll sell 60,000 tickets in one day as sales associates yell out dates to a co-worker who frantically fills them in on a greaseboard. Fans line up for hours before individual tickets go on sale, ensuring that the team is a long ways toward filling the stadium before the first pitch of the season is ever thrown.
“Since we’re an island a lot of the summer recreation has been to go to the beach,” Boulton said. “Now you can go to the beach and go to the ballpark.”
The on-the-field product has kept the fans coming back as well. The Ducks have made the playoffs in each of the past four seasons and won the 2004 league title. This year they went 72-54 in the regular season, tied for the second-best record in the league before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Boulton has found the Mets decision to thumb down his move to Long Island quite beneficial. If he had brought an affiliated club to town, he would have had no control over the quality of the on-field product. Now he knows that if the Ducks win, it’s his staff’s handiwork, and if they don’t in the end it’s his fault.
“The fun part of this is working with Dave and putting on the field the best product we can,” Boulton said.
“The Long Island Ducks are the best thing I’ve ever done in baseball.”