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At Home With the Ports08/07/2008 10:35 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
The Minor League Baseball landscape is endlessly diverse and encompasses everything from rookie league clubs nestled in mountainous rural areas to Triple-A teams located in the heart of major urban centers. Accordingly, each club must develop marketing and promotional strategies that resonate with its unique fan base. Each week, MiLB.com profiles a Minor League club to spotlight just how interesting and varied the world of professional baseball can be.
Today, we speak with Luke Reiff, assistant general manager for the Stockton Ports (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Oakland A's). Stockton has hosted a ballclub since the California League's inception in 1941, and professional baseball in the area dates back to the 19th century.
It has long been speculated that the "Mudville Nine," mentioned in the classic poem "Casey at the Bat," were based on a Stockton ballclub.
MiLB.com: How would characterize your team's fan base? Has it grown or changed in recent years?
LR: We are currently in our fourth season at Banner Island Ballpark, so the honeymoon period that occurs with a new facility has come and gone. As expected, our average attendance more than doubled after our move to the new stadium, and it has continued to improve each year. In 2007 we set a franchise attendance record, and we are on pace to do so yet again this season. The Ports have been playing in Stockton since 1941, so our fan base has seen it all. We've got the old timers who have seen the likes of Vince DiMaggio and Pumpsie Green here in Stockton, and we've also got the A's fans that are here to chart the team's OPS.
As a whole, we are really excited about our market and the growth potential that lies within our location in Central California and proximity to the Bay Area. We expect our fan base to continue growing as our ballpark matures.
MiLB.com: What type of marketing strategies do the fans respond to?
LR: Phone calls. Our staff is made up entirely of sales personnel. Everyone on our front-office roster is expected to produce ticket or sponsorship sales, with few exceptions. As a result, each individual season ticket, group or sponsorship account has a single point of contact within the organization. In addition, every business and organization within a 50-mile radius that does not currently partner with us in some way will hear from a Ports representative at least once throughout the year. The single-point-of-contact approach allows us to cater specifically to each fan's needs the first time, which ensures an excellent ballpark experience and repeat business year after year.
We have also developed our website, online sales and e-blast capabilities to the point where we see this as this as a necessary means of communication with our fans. Without a doubt, we create more of a buzz for our upcoming events and homestands through our website and email alerts. Without these efforts, a large contingent of our fan base would be in the dark in regards to what we have going on.
MiLB.com: Has your team staged any notable promotions in recent years? Any that just didn't work?
LR: My baby this year was Canadian Tuxedo Appreciation Night, which was a huge success. Our fans really seemed to get excited about it, and a number of television, radio and online news outlets picked up the story.
On a more serious note, though, we are always looking for promotions that sell tickets and sponsorships while benefiting the community as well. As always, cause marketing has proven to be very beneficial for our organization and the surrounding community. We hosted our second annual Pink Day benefiting breast cancer awareness and research, and we were able to raise a large amount of money for the local medical center here in Stockton as well as sell tickets and sponsorships directly related to the event. Not unlike many other teams, we also hosted a Ports Go Green Night this season. This was an event that was well received by numerous businesses within the area, and we turned the ballpark into an environmental trade show for the night. We were also able to kick off a couple of programs on this night that will reduce our "carbon footprint" as an organization.
MiLB.com: How has the internet affected the way your team is run?
LR: The internet plays a vital role in everything we do. From our website to other partners on the web, we try to operate our business online more and more each day. Not only do we sell tickets and merchandise on the web, market our events, and give game and team updates, but we also do a large majority of our hiring on the web. While personal relationships and references are central to building any front office, we have been very fortunate with the candidates and eventual new hires who have applied with the Ports online.
Clearly, we rely on the internet more each year, and this is certainly something that we have grown to accept. However, it is our organizational philosophy to present each fan with the opportunity to have a single point of contact with the team. Considering the broad scope of this goal, we are certainly challenged with the task of keeping up with our web traffic while remaining an intimate and fan-oriented organization.
MiLB.com: Does your concession stand serve any regional specialties or otherwise remarkable items?
LR: Our most unique concession item would be fried asparagus. Stockton, along with the Central Valley of California, is known for its agricultural production, and asparagus just happens to be a product that Stockton has hung its hat on. In April, the City of Stockton hosts its Annual Asparagus Festival, and we are working to build on the status of this vegetable. Fried asparagus is just that, asparagus that is fried, and we like to serve it with a cold Heineken.
In addition, each game in the middle of the sixth inning we hold the night's main event, an Asparagus Race. Fans are treated with a nightly foot race pitting three different types of asparagus (Regular, Fried and Chocolate) against each other. Bernie, Blanche and Lil Hank are our eight-foot tall asparagus competitors that battle it out every night for asparagus race supremacy.
MiLB.com: What type of merchandise sells best at the team store? Are there any unique items available for purchase?
LR: We have done very well in recent years with our game-worn jersey auctions. This is something that is done routinely throughout professional sports, but still deserves to be mentioned. Packaging the game-worn jersey, with the opportunity to meet the player and get an autograph after the game, is in high demand. We do between six and 10 jersey/hat auctions throughout the year, and there never seems to be a shortage of interest. With new players and different promotions every year, I'm sure this trend will continue.
MiLB.com: How large of a role does your mascot play, both at the stadium and within the community?
LR: Our mascot, Splash, is the face of our organization. He is at the main entrance when the gates open and on the dugout when we are closing out the ninth. Throughout the year we do everything we can to get Splash into the community with no strings attached -- he is just plain available. Obviously, our two most successful areas of emphasis with the mascot fall within the youth in our community. Clearly the area Little Leagues are our most fertile ground to drum up support, and Splash is at their Opening Days and subsequent games here and there. In addition, our "Baseball by the Books" reading program puts Splash in over 100 area schools during the offseason.
MiLB.com: Minor League stadiums often vary greatly from one another. What are the positives of playing in your facility? Any drawbacks?
LR: As with most new facilities, we have a lot to be proud of, and we don't mind telling anyone who'll listen. Banner Island Ballpark is located in downtown Stockton next to the furthest inland seaport on the West Coast. The ballpark is part of a larger downtown revitalization project that includes a 10,000-seat arena, outdoor amphitheater, movie theater and 2,000-seat indoor theater.
Inside the ballpark, we have a lot to be proud of as well. In 2007, our groundskeeper, Justin Clarke, was honored with the California League Field of the Year. This is no small feat considering the lack of rain here in the summer months. In addition, we have one of the most unique seating areas in all of baseball. Our Jackson Rancheria Back Porch is a group seating area for up to 100 people, which has 50 Adirondack-style rocking chairs with a wooden trellis-like cover. It is by far the most popular seating area in the ballpark, and is sold out on a regular basis.
Our main drawback, being in Central California, is the heat. Throughout the summer we routinely experience 100-plus degree heat. However, this typically becomes bearable given our proximity to the water and the strong breeze that usually accompanies our location.
MiLB.com: What are some of your favorite on-field moments since you've been with the team?
LR: In 2007 we hosted the California/Carolina League All-Star Game, and this was without a doubt the highlight of my short career in baseball. From our first pitches by Bridget Marquardt (one of Hugh Hefner's girlfriends) and Fred Biletnikoff (former Oakland Raider great) to the Red Bull Sky Diving Team, it was truly an outstanding event.
During the pregame ceremonies, the sky divers delivered the game ball. Clearly this has been done before and is proven to be a task that can be accomplished. However, because of my vantage point as the divers entered the stadium, it looked as though they were going to navigate themselves directly into our light poles. At no point in my life have I felt like I was any closer to observing death first hand, but miraculously it all worked out and I narrowly avoided my first heart attack.
In the end the California League was victorious, 10-5, over the Carolina League, but the best from this game is yet to come. The allure of Minor League Baseball is never more evident than in the years following an All-Star Game. As time passes, I can't wait to pull the roster from my files and look back on the names from our All-Star Game that are currently Major Leaguers.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.