2021 Minor League Executive of the Year: K.L. Wombacher (Hillsboro Hops)
Everywhere around the country, minor league teams received an unexpected status check in 2020.
With no season and uncertainty over what the reorganized minors would look like in 2021, minor league operators had to reach out to their longtime supporters and ask them for help.
And they didn’t know what the response would be. Would everyone ask for their money back or would supporters help out the teams by leaving their money with the club?
When the Hillsboro Hops reached out to their sponsors to inform them that they wouldn’t have a 2020 season, not one of the sponsors asked for their money back. Instead, every one of them just pushed their sponsorships to 2021.
Maybe even more impressively, 94% of the Hops’ season-ticket holders rolled their money over into 2021 season tickets.
Such a vote of confidence was beyond the Hillsboro front office’s wildest dreams. It was also a clear indication of how the Hops franchise, which is located outside Portland, Ore., had developed a deep connection with their fans and supporters.
“That was a wake-up call for us. That was incredible,” Hillsboro president K.L. Wombacher said. “We had hoped for 85%. That was one of those moments where you realize how much community support you have.
“It’s hard to take the blinders off and realize how supportive our fan base is. It was a validation for us and a moment to take a step back and be grateful.”
But such support is not all that surprising. The Hops quickly became an integral part of the Hillsboro community when they moved there from Yakima in 2013.
Facing capacity restrictions for the first couple of months of the 2021 season, Hillsboro drew 1,871 fans per game in 2021. In every other season, Hillsboro has averaged more than 3,000 fans per game to make them consistently one of the best draws in the Northwest.
This year, the club had a lot more of a good thing. After having no baseball in 2020, the Hops, along with the rest of what was previously known as the short-season Northwest League, jumped from 38-game home schedules to 60 home games. The league moved up in classification to become High-A West.
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The 2021 season brought additional challenges. When league-mate Vancouver faced an inability to cross the U.S.-Canada border because of coronavirus restrictions, the Hops opened Ron Tonkin Field to them. That meant that Hillsboro nearly doubled its total of home games.
“The reason it was an easy decision is we wanted to help,” Wombacher said. “(Vancouver was) in a bind. We preach as a staff to be a good teammate. This was our chance to be a good teammate,”
The Canadians brought some staff to Hillsboro to operate Vancouver’s “home games,” but the food and beverage staff for Hillsboro worked both teams’ games.
“Our food and beverage team were gasping for breath at the end of the season. They literally couldn’t take a day off,” Wombacher said. “Mondays were reset days to go between (the two) teams. They took the biggest brunt of this.
“We wanted to put (the Vancouver team) in a position to be as successful as they could. Vancouver did not want to be a distraction, so they brought staff here and did as much as they could to be independent.”
For the Hops’ consistent success in providing an excellent operation and the team’s adaptability, Wombacher is our 2021 Minor League Executive of the Year.
As Wombacher noted, such an award is really a function of an entire staff working well together. The Hops have now weathered the storm that was 2020, and they showed their adaptability in 2021. They hope 2022 will bring return to normalcy, though after the past two years, being ready to adapt to unexpected challenges has become a part of the playbook as well.
“We’re fired up about 2022,” Wombacher said. “We can’t make too many assumptions. We’ve got to have Plan B, Plan C, Plan D. Our sales are extremely strong. We’re getting groups booking for next summer.”
There were concerns that Northwest League teams would struggle to sell fans on a full season. As a short-season league, the league’s teams avoided the wetter and colder months of April and May. Now, the season will run from April until September.
But there are advantages as well. Fans have more games to attend. The team has more dates to sell. And the longer 2021 season meant that the Hops were able to clear out the make-goods for the lost 2020 season with more dates and opportunities for fans and sponsors.
“There’s definitely some negativity around a long season,” Wombacher said. “We were spoiled (as a short-season team in the past by) going . . . Father’s Day to Labor Day. We had some of the best weather in the country, every season, every game.
“But if you tell me I go from 38 days to make money to 66 days to make money, I’ll take the 66 days 100 times out of 100. It’s up to us to figure out how to make it work. There are plenty of days in April and May where it’s 72 (degrees) and perfect weather.”