Triple-A Freitas Award: Durham Bulls

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By now, everyone is familiar with the phenomenon that is the Durham Bulls.

But you may not know the complete backstory, so we’ll give you the quick version: Under the ownership of Miles Wolff, the Bulls returned Durham, N.C., to the Carolina League in 1980 and were an instant hit at the box office, drawing 175,963 fans in their first season and becoming the league’s flagship franchise.

Operated by: Capitol Broadcasting Co., Inc.
President, Chief Executive Officer: Jim Goodmon.
Vice President: George Habel. VP, Legal Counsel: Mike Hill.
General Manager: Mike Birling. Assistant GM: Jon Bishop. Account Executives, Sponsorship: Dusty Hickman, Chip Hutchinson, Chris Overby, Neil Solondz. Coordinator, Sponsorship Services: Suzi Paugh. Director, Media Relations/ Promotions: Matt DeMargel. Coordinator, Marketing: Cicero Leak. Assistant, Media Relations: Drew Blake. Assistant, Promotions: Allison Phillips. Director, Ticketing: Tim Seaton. Supervisor, Ticket Operations: Ben DuGoff. Business Development Coordinators: Vince Logan, Jacob Powers, Mary Beth Warfford. Group Sales Assistants: Rich Brady, Ben Sanderson. Coordinator, Ticket Services: Meredith Linden. Director, Stadium Operations: Shawn Kison. Supervisor, Operations: Derek Walsh. Manager, Merchandise: Yunhui Harris. General Manager, Concessions: Jamie Jenkins. Assistant GM, Concessions: Tammy Scott. Head Groundskeeper: Scott Strickland. Manager, Business: Rhonda Carlile. Supervisor, Accounting: Theresa Stocking. Accountant: Megan Ely. Director, Security: Ed Sarvis. Box Office Sales: Jerry Mach. Manager, Home Clubhouse: Colin Saunders. Manager, Visiting/Umpires Clubhouse: Aaron Kuehner.

The next level of success came with the release of the movie “Bull Durham” in 1988, giving the team a national profile. Eventually, though, Wolff became frustrated in his efforts to get a new ballpark and sold the team to Capitol Broadcasting, a company based in nearby Raleigh that also owns several radio and television stations.

Capitol was able to get a new ballpark for the team, and the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in 1995. Attendance jumped to a new level, the Bulls enjoyed a long-term affiliation with the Atlanta Braves, and everyone seemed happy.

Soon after the new ballpark opened, however, came the opportunity to move up to Triple-A. And here’s where the next chapter of Durham Bulls history began.

There were those with the Bulls who didn’t think the move was a great idea. But Capitol Broadcasting president Jim Goodmon saw it as an opportunity to improve the product the franchise offered, from the quality of play on the field to enhancements that would be made to the ballpark to bring it up to Triple-A capacity.

“The Atlanta Braves single-A franchise was doing just fine,” said Bulls vice president George Habel, who has worked for the team in one capacity or another since 1998. “We viewed (moving up to Triple-A) with some trepidation, but no hesitation, and we felt we had to do it.

“We didn’t necessarily expect to do a lot better from an attendance standpoint, but the move up to Triple-A has worked out well.”

Indeed, the Bulls have gone from drawing around 350,000 fans a season in their first few years in the new ballpark as a Carolina League franchise, to draw about 500,000 fans a season as an International League franchise. (The Carolina League franchise moved to South Carolina and became the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.)

One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the team’s commitment to its community. From sponsoring local youth league teams to helping raise money for charitable groups such as the ALS Foundation, the franchise has always tried to weave itself into the fabric of Durham. Its Durham Bulls youth league spent more than $300,000 to renovate fields in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and now more than 400 kids are able to play in the league at no cost. The team even buys their equipment, including gloves.

But it doesn’t end there. General manager Mike Birling said a focus on community and families is the reason the Bulls have the lowest ticket and concession prices in Triple-A, and the reason they focus on ticket mini-plans, picnics and group sales as the driving force in the team’s success.

“That’s where our big success has come in terms of raising attendance,” Birling said. “We want to provide an experience where families can still afford to come out.”

And all that work in the community paid dividends this season, when the Bulls had to endure several public-relations nightmares brought on by the team provided by the Devil Rays. First, there was the bat-throwing incident from Delmon Young. And then the drunken-driving charge against B.J. Upton. The multiple suspensions for Elijah Dukes, topped off by his comments deriding Durham in a USA Today story.

While the players’ actions provoked some anger among fans, however, most were quick to draw a distinction between the team and the Bulls franchise. The team had its best average attendance ever and would have broken its overall attendance record if not for several rainouts at the end of the season.

“I think it speaks to the goodwill we’ve built up in the community and the team’s reputation,” Habel said. “So much of it was out of our control that I can’t claim we did a lot–other than talk to our manager and the Devil Rays–but we were pretty wound up about it.

“We consider ourselves family entertainment, and our image was threatened by the way it snowballed. But it’s not something you can do a whole lot about.”

Other than this year’s big misstep, the Devil Rays have been a great partner for the Triple-A Bulls. They initially helped pay the expansion fee to establish the franchise, though Capitol has since bought them out and is the sole owner of the team.

And Capitol isn’t standing still now that the Bulls are established as a Triple-A success. The company has already used the ballpark to stimulate development in downtown Durham, building an office building beyond right field and renovating a group of old tobacco warehouses adjacent to the park. Now Capitol is about to break ground on a second office building, this one in left field.

“To be successful, you have to be given the resources, and Capitol Broadcasting has always done that,” Birling said. “Jim Goodmon is never content with the norm. He always wants to push us and I love that. We keep improving, and doing it in a way that’s really family-oriented.”