Short-Season Freitas Award: Aberdeen Ironbirds

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From their first game in 2002, it was clear the Aberdeen IronBirds were a special operation, but in the months leading up to that Opening Day in the short-season New York-Penn League, it was hard to imagine the kind of success the IronBirds would have.

Operated by: Ripken Professional Baseball LLC.
Principal Owner/President: Cal Ripken Jr.
Co-owner/Executive Vice President, Ripken Baseball: Bill Ripken. Vice President: Jeff Eiseman. General Manager: Aaron Moszer. Executive Director, Professional Baseball: Amy Venuto. Director, Ticket Sales: Lev Shellenberger. Director, Ticket Operation: Brad Cox. Director of Retail Merchandising: Don Eney. Video Production Manager: Dave Lundin. Corporate Sales Manager: Heather Zucker. Client Services and Advertising Manager: Joey Helsel. Senior Account Executive: Patrick McMaster. Account Executives: Jenna Raglani, Joe Bauer, Nicholas Harvey. Accounting: Elly Ripken. Accounting Assistant: Susan Borig. Director of Events: Jennifer Ludwig. Events Coordinator: Lindsey Miller. Director of Facilities: Tom Boehl. Maintenance Coordinator: Phil Tyler. Head Groundskeeper: Chris Walsh. Assistant Head Groundskeeper: Ryan Walsh. Custodial Coordinator: Jane Rybka. Office Coordinator: Jo Ann Reynolds.

The construction of a new stadium in Aberdeen was roughly 70 percent complete, and a new independent Atlantic League team was slated to play there. The indy franchise was worried about the market, however, and decided to move its operation to Camden, N.J. Without a team, the state went to Aberdeen’s favorite son, Cal Ripken Jr., in hopes he could get a team into what is now called Ripken Stadium.

“We were prepared to take occupancy in June and had not sold a ticket and did not have a team,” said Jeff Eiseman, vice president of Ripken Baseball, which is the corporation that operates the team. “What has taken many organizations a year to 18 months to launch, we did it in four and a half.”

Fortuitously, the short-season New York-Penn League had a struggling franchise in Utica, and Ripken completed the purchase of the club on Valentine’s Day of 2002. That did not leave much time to get things up and running, as the season was set to begin in June.

“Having the Ripken name, in that town, will get the people to listen to you,”  Eiseman said. “It will open doors, but won’t keep them in the room.”

The IronBirds set forth on an ambitious plan of selling as many season tickets as possible in an effort to create demand for their product. The IronBirds figured that tickets for the home opener would be in the highest demand, so they only sold tickets for that game to those who were also willing to buy a full-, half- or quarter-season ticket package.

The plan worked perfectly, as the Orioles affiliate was able to sell out its 6,300-seat ballpark for all 38 home games. In the process, the IronBirds built up a waiting list that has since reached 1,800.

“(Selling out the stadium) is what drives us, because we have a very singular focus to maximize the number of people in the ballpark,” said Chris Flannery, chief operating officer of Ripken Baseball. “Once you’ve done that, everything becomes easier. Because you can tell advertisers that their ad will appear in front of a packed house every night.”

Ripken Stadium is now the centerpiece of Ripken Center, a facility that also features an enormous youth baseball complex dedicated to teaching baseball “The Ripken Way.” The Ripken Youth Baseball Academy includes a scaled down replica of Fenway Park as well as one of Camden Yards that is known as Cal Sr.’s yard. The youth facility is home to camps and clinics from March until November. It also hosts the Cal Ripken World Series in August, the championship for the 10-to-12-year-old division of Babe Ruth Baseball.

It would seem that the facility is booked for baseball year round, but Ripken Baseball still finds different ways to maximize revenue, all while promoting the IronBirds.

“We hold over 200 non-baseball events in that facility every year,” Flannery said. “From home and garden shows, to weddings, to small trade shows. All of those activities get people coming to the ballpark that might not come. They are getting exposure to the facility and think, ‘I should check out a game.’ “

While the ancillary events are helpful, the IronBirds’ staff understands minor league baseball is the main reason for their success.

“Every day is Opening Day to us,” Eiseman said. “You only get 38 (home games) in short-season leagues. We know we get as many people on a Monday as on a Friday. We can’t control the experience on the field, we can control their experience between innings and how much fun they have from when they walk in the gates to when we turn out the lights.”

The IronBirds are also heavily involved in the community and have assisted more than 2,000 non-profit organizations since their inception. They have shown a vision to become the centerpiece for their community, and Ripken Baseball is involved in developing the land around the stadium and building a substantial shopping center adjacent to the complex.

Ripken Baseball is hoping to capitalize on this success all over the country with an ambitious plan of owning 10 teams in 10 years. Prior to this season, Ripken Baseball purchased the Augusta GreenJackets of the low Class A South Atlantic League and proved that its methods are not only effective in short-season leagues as the GreenJackets saw a significant attendance spike this season.

With the success of the IronBirds (and now the GreenJackets), “The Ripken Way” is proving it extends off the field.