Feature Article - March 2002
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Not So Minor Attractions

The major success of minor-league baseball

By Kelli Anderson

Safety first

Part of the family's enjoyment comes from the fact that stadiums, both new and newly renovated, have intentionally designed the children's attractions to be within eye-view of parents. For a parenting generation that is keen to keep tabs on their children at all times, it is freeing for them to know they can let their children roam within the safe confines of the ballpark and within view.

"Since families are our main target, children come to the game, and families know that if the kid wanders or wants to go somewhere else in the park, it's safe," says Ryan Bardi, a group sales specialist from the Reading Phillies. "We try to keep it as clean as possible, and parents have the peace of mind knowing their kids are having fun and that it's safe."


If you build it, they will come—in droves

Designing a facility that meets the needs of this child-conscious market is another must. Thanks, in part, to the 1989 Professional Baseball Agreement, a contract between the major and minor leagues to set up minimum facility standards at ballparks, many ballparks knew they either had to build a new park or renovate existing ones. Although some, like the Reading Phillies, saw the value of preserving the classic look to give patrons a sense of baseball nostalgia, the vast majority opted to start over from scratch. The resulting designs took the needs of all their patrons into account: adults who go to actually enjoy the game, large groups enjoying a special event, and families wanting a safe and fun environment.

For example, in 1995, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the Durham Bulls in Durham, N.C., was built by HOK Sport, architects out of Kansas City, Mo. The lead architect on the project at the time, Tom Tingle (now the project manager for the Durham Bulls), had extensive experience designing to the needs of minor-league baseball stadiums with more than 20 parks to his creative credit.

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park was designed to seat more than 10,000 and contains many of the successful elements of a family-friendly facility.

"Among the trends in the last 10 years for families are playgrounds that are well designed and positioned so that parents can watch the game and the kids," Tingle says. Picnic areas are another popular feature that are more geared to group sales but also to children. Then there are what he terms "the alternative areas of revenue"—carousels, video-game arcades, speed-pitch batting cages and the like to occupy the attention of the children. Even concessions get in the game, geared to kids with selections of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served from kid-sized counters.

Comfort with a view is another important factor. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park has roofed seating for 2,500, all with extra-wide seat backs, lots of legroom and cup holders. Every seat is up-close and personal, typical of the intimate, community feeling of many minor-league stadiums.

Facilities are also designed to be flexible. With everything from carnivals to you-name-it pre- and post-game events, many ballparks now include a wide concourse outfitted with the necessary power, water supply and weather-protection features to accommodate a wide variety of ventures.

To market, to market

Minor-league baseball isn't all fun and games, however—it's also become a smarter business. In 1988, Craig Stein bought the Reading Phillies, a AA affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, and hired Chuck Dominoe as general manager. Dominoe, then a recent graduate with a newfangled degree in sports management from Biscayne College in Miami, Fla., was part of a new generation with new ideas and marketing savvy.

"Craig never owned a team before, but I came with a vision for family entertainment—Craig came with two young daughters—and then shared that vision," Dominoe says. "We wanted to keep it upbeat and fun, and this was at a time when it was hitting home in the late '80s, and everybody 'got it.'"

What Dominoe and others in the late '80s "got" was the answer to minor-league baseball's fan-base woes: families and the marketing techniques to draw them.