What’s New At The Ballpark: Northwest Arkansas

Keep the product fresh.

It's a mantra recited by minor league operators in markets large and small, at ballparks new and old. For unlike their major league counterparts, the people who run minor league teams realize that much of their fan base considers the action on the field secondary to the hijinks and entertainment off it—from between-innings follies to children's playgrounds to deep-fried delicacies at the concession stands.

For that reason, teams spend the seven months between the final out of one season and the first pitch of the next looking for ways to keep their product fresh—a new offering to keep fans and families coming to the ballpark.

It's a universal offseason practice around the minors, though exactly what needs to be tinkered with is not so standard. For some teams it's a new scoreboard so the kiss cam and shell game can be viewed in high def. Or it's a section of seats that needs to be replaced with tabletops, a wait staff and an offbeat theme that will entice fans to take in a game from a new vantage point. Or perhaps it's a series of alumni bobbleheads or more fireworks or a new mascot or dollar beer nights (or all of the above).

Regardless of what it is, chances are change is coming to a team near you this season. So with that in mind, we're going to count down to the start of the season by looking at the many different ways teams have freshened up their homes this winter.  We'll kick it off with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, winners of the 2012 Double-A Freitas Award, who plan to introduce a trio of fan-pleasing additions to Arvest Ballpark, which will host the Double-A Texas League all-star game this June.

Eric Edelstein addressed one of his passions when he landed a job running a baseball team seven years ago. The Naturals general manager will cross another off his list when he opens a craft beer stand at Arvest Ballpark this season.

Edelstein considers himself a lover of craft beers, and he's confident he isn't alone. The new stand along the right-field line will put that theory to a test with 20 brews regularly on tap and another 40 in rotation. Core Brewing, the first craft brewery in Springdale, Ark., will partner with Northwest Arkansas as the naming-rights sponsor of the stand and its seasonal selections will the featured attraction.

Edelstein believes the beer garden will be a hit among the regulars at the ballpark but will also help the team tap into a younger audience.

"Microbrews are typically an under-35 thing right now," he said. "It's a way to add a wrinkle of fun for everyone who is here, but I'm also hopeful that it gives us a window into a demographic that we aren't attracting as much right now. Our goal is to have as good a selection as any bar or restaurant in Northwest Arkansas."

The Naturals will also unveil an area on the other side of the ballpark that they believe will appeal to fans of all ages—though perhaps with an emphasis on the younger crowd. The Naturals are converting a seldom-used concession area into a dessert-only stand, that just happens to be conveniently located next to the Kids Zone play area. And the Naturals plan to stock it with plenty of sweet-tooth selections, including featured items like include deep-fried oreos, chocolate-covered bananas, milkshakes, homemade ice cream sandwiches and Northwest Arkansas' famous funnel dog—a hot dog wrapped in funnel-cake batter, fried and topped with powdered sugar.

"The vision of (the dessert stand) was sort of like the state fair," Northwest Arkansas general manager Eric Edelstein said. "It's not going to be healthy, but rather it's a place to treat yourself."

Arvest Ballpark debuted in 2008 and has held relatively steady at the gate, averaging 4,656 fans last season after bringing in 4,779 per game in 2011. Edelstein notes that the ballpark is as beautiful as when it first opened, “but it’s not new.” The two new concession areas will add a bit of variety to the venue.

“We know we can serve most of our fans through our concession outlets, so it gave us the chance to do something with some of our ancillary outlets that weren't being utilized," Edelstein said.

And lastly, Northwest Arkansas is adding a spot for those who like to get their game on at the ballgame. The team has converted one of its suites into a game room that can be rented out to groups on a nightly basis and comes stocked with a Wii playing on a big screen and a stand-up video game that features 70 different classic selections—think Galaga and Centipede—in high definition. A chalkboard will cover one of the walls so kids "can really have at it," Edelstein said, "and have fun in the suite." And for those interested in the action on the diamond, the game-room suite does overlook playing field.

"My biggest concern is making sure the staff doesn't spend too much time playing Wii bowling in the afternoons," Edelstein joked.