2017 Freitas Awards: Charleston RiverDogs

The credit card company won’t stop calling Nate Kurant. He jokes that he might make a spreadsheet with all of the purchases they’ve rejected.

Like the time he bought $4,000 worth of Silly String. Obviously fraud, right? Or when he tried to buy $150 in circus peanuts at a candy store. Canceled—no way anyone would do that. Or the time he tried to rent a giraffe.

Such is life as the director of promotions for the Charleston RiverDogs, the Yankees’ low Class A affiliate and an organization known for wacky, outside-the-box promotions. The RiverDogs abide by a “fun is good” mantra. And there’s no question that plenty of fun is had at Riley Park.

“We did a human cannonball my first weekend of baseball here,” Kurant, who joined Charleston in 2016, said. “I’ve been really fortunate in my position. We have really good people here and there’s really good creativity. But it’s a testament to the organization—the organization gave the prompt of when I started, ‘Hey, let’s do something different. Let’s try to keep people around postgame. Try some things that will be entertaining.’”

Clearly, fans have been entertained. In 2017, the RiverDogs set a new attendance record for the third straight season, eclipsing 300,000 fans for the first time. That $4,000 worth of Silly String? It was all put to use on April 22 for String Night, when Charleston fans set a world record for the largest simultaneous blast of Silly String canisters.

“The Silly String—it’s got silly in the name. It’s innocent and clean and simple to understand for the youngest kid and the oldest adult,” Kurant said. “It’s big and colorful. It hits so many check boxes. It just made sense.”

The RiverDogs like big and colorful. For instance, once a month, they rent a helicopter that drops 3,000 bouncy balls onto the field—a unique visual display. The RiverDogs like creativity, too, and they’ve shown a willingness to push the envelope, all while maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere.   

Kurant said the key is creating a safe place where staff members can throw out what might seem like silly, dumb or far-fetched ideas. Often, those ideas will lead to something productive. In 2017, one staffer suggested a “Legalize It” night for 4/20. That idea didn’t quite make the cut, for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t totally abandoned either. Instead, Charleston put together a tongue-in-cheek “Legalize Marinara” night, celebrating red sauce in all its iterations.

Even if something’s been done before, the RiverDogs challenge themselves to think of new ways to implement it. Instead of giving away 1,000 T-shirts at the gates when fans walk in, they’ll do a 1,000 T-shirt toss. In perhaps its most self-aware promotion yet, Charleston put together an “It’s All Been Done” night in August, which playfully mocked Minor League Baseball’s overindulgence when it comes to promotions. The result was a night that cashed in on every promotional cliche in the book and featured purposely ugly uniforms—a mashup of all the specialty jerseys minor league teams typically wear throughout the season.

“We could write a handbook of, ‘Hey, here’s what you do: You invite this character and this character and these inflatables.’ You could do Promo 101,” Kurant said. “And so we just thought we would point out all of those things all at once, and I really thought it would get a laugh.”

Of course, the on-field product is entertaining in its own right, especially in 2017 when the RiverDogs went 42-27 and featured blossoming top Yankees prospect Estevan Florial, among others.

But whether the team wins or loses, Charleston fans can expect a captivating night at the yard. They might even see something they’ve never seen before. That’s the goal for Kurant and the rest of the staff, to maintain creativity and constantly try new ideas. They want to wow their audience.

That formula isn’t changing any time soon.

“I mean, honestly, it sounds like one of the answers you’d get from the players, but it’s a team effort,” Kurant said. “It truly is. Somebody puts something out there. Sometimes it’s a throwaway line of, ‘Oh, we should try this,’ and everybody laughs.

“But then everybody does that little head shift: ’Maybe we should try that!’”

More often than not, they do.

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