Minor league baseball has developed a well-earned reputation for embracing the outrageous, from increasingly bizarre team names (you’re on the clock, Fayetteville) to over-the-top dining options (has anyone ever finished a Fifth-Third Burger?), to offbeat and sometimes-controversial promotions (gasp, Millennial Night).
The biggest draw early this season has been a promotion that’s hardly controversial but can still make for a wild afternoon at the ballpark. Education Days, in which teams partner with local schools to pack the park with kids for day games, are a way for teams to bring in big crowds on an otherwise quiet weekday while also building bonds in the community. Many teams develop baseball-themed curriculum used in their local school systems—the one developed by the Indianapolis Indians has become a staple in area schools.
These school day promotions have been a regular part of many teams’ promotional calendars for years, and for good reason. As our Attendance Tracker has shown this spring, the biggest weekday attractions in the minors has consistently been Education Day promotions. The Frisco RoughRiders drew 11,844 fans to Dr. Pepper Ballpark on May 21, their largest day-game crowd and fifth-largest overall in franchise history, for Education Day. One day later, the Indianapolis Indians attracted 12,279 schoolkids and teachers to Victory Field. One one weekday afternoon earlier this month, eight of the top 10 draws came on an Education Day promotions.
So, to find out a little more about this fad and why teams welcome fleets of yellow school buses to their parking lots each season, I emailed several general managers about the appeal of Education Day promotions. What follows is a selection of their responses.
These games are certainly a hit for the kids, but how about for the team? What is the payoff for having a ballpark full of schoolkids? How does the revenue compare to a regular gameday?
“Payoff of having a ballpark full of schoolkids is that the players play in front of a very enthusiastic (if not sugar induced) young crowd and it creates an electric atmosphere early in the season. Can never get tired of hearing SpongeBob SquarePants for the 23rd time during a game when you see thousands of schoolkids enjoying the day,” West Michigan Whitecaps Vice President Jim Jarecki wrote. “For many of the thousands of schoolkids, it will be the only game they get to for the season and it is making a great memory. Who doesn’t remember their first time going to either a minor league or major league baseball game?
“The bump in attendance obviously is a huge payoff—we can get 5,000-6,000 at an 11 a.m. Tuesday game in May, whereas if we played it at 7:05 that same night, we’re probably looking at half the size. This is a day where it is OK to play hooky from school and not get in trouble. The revenue on a school day game compared to a regular gameday is similar. The ticket revenue may be affected slightly because of the redemption of the Reading Club tickets (kids read certain amount of minutes in March and receive a game ticket) but the concessions (minus the adult beverages, of course) and souvenirs stay steady. When your mom gives you $20, you certainly aren’t going to come home with any of it.”
“Because we focus on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the payoff from a revenue standpoint is that we are able to pre-sell significantly more tickets than an average early-week date,” Frisco RoughRiders Executive Vice President and General Manager Jason Dambach wrote. “In Frisco, we have found that our merchandise per caps are right about on par with our total average. We consider that a win because, again, your regular early week evening game typically isn’t going to be strong from a revenue standpoint. Food is typically pre-sold in the form of a simplified menu or boxed lunch, so general concessions are pretty consistently lower than the norm, though specific kid-centric food offerings like Dippin’ Dots always do very well on their own merit.
“From the team standpoint, I’ve never found that players or coaches dislike playing at 10 or 11 a.m. Early in the season they aren’t all that far removed from the early-morning grind of spring training, plus if you are able to couple the early games with a getaway day, it’s really a win-win. We generally like to avoid back-to-back games because in that case it does impede on the team’s ability to get in extra work and fundamentals, but I do know that it’s somewhat common to see back-to-back dates around the industry. It’s something we do our best to avoid in Frisco.”
“It’s a great atmosphere as the main percentage of the crowd is mostly third to sixth graders who are excited to be at the ballpark with their classmates,” Northwest Arkansas Naturals Vice President Justin Cole wrote. “I can’t disclose revenue specifics, but the main financial impact is from a group sales standpoint. The tickets are greatly discounted for the kids, and even larger discounts for the chaperones. We don’t charge the buses to park either. We do have a sponsor for the games which helps offset some of that. The largest benefits are that it is a large group sale if we can engage the schools properly, but it also turns what may be an average weeknight game in April or May into a potential sellout.”
I have to imagine it’s a lot of work to host an Education Day promotion. What goes into organizing and pulling off one of these promotions?
“It is a year-long process, mainly with a dedicated account representative working with our sales director on strategy and timelines to canvas as many schools in our critical radius as we can,” Northwest Arkansas’ Justin Cole wrote. “And then we conduct regular follow-ups from there. We start the process in August of each year in planning for the next season’s games. It includes mailers, phone calls, emails, meeting with school district officials and promoting the event at local teacher expos.”
“In terms of planning, speaking for Frisco, we generally try to schedule three-to-four games depending on how the schedule falls in comparison to the school calendar,” Frisco’s Jason Dambach wrote. “That number has sort of become the generally-accepted number that our major league partners are comfortable with. We find that the closer to the end of the school year, the larger the crowds. In terms of determining the exact dates, we look at it from a number of angles.
“First, we create a focus group of school teachers and administrators from across our footprint and run the proposed dates by them. This is important because we need to make sure that there aren’t any statewide mandatory test dates or other factors that would impact the success of the dates we select. We try to balance that against the homestand schedule, attempting to place the games on getaway days for the benefit of the teams. From there, once the dates are set, it’s a matter of our staff reaching out to schools across our market and selling them on the benefits of bringing their classes to the ballpark for a day of fun.”
“The organization starts with the Whitecaps ticket department and contacting the schools early enough so that they can plan the game date(s) well enough in advance—usually by September prior to the next season,” West Michigan’s Jim Jarecki wrote. “Important to get the school game dates established so that the schools can put the game(s) on the school year calendar. The Whitecaps Reading Club program is well established in West Michigan and many schools that participate will designate one of the three game dates. The three School Day games will take place in late May and early June as the schools are winding down and the field trips are planned . . .
“The three School Day games are definitely a staple of the promo calendar, especially in the first two months of the season. We are able to secure sponsorship of businesses that want to be in front of thousands of kids and hundreds of teachers and chaperones. These are three games out of 70 games but we focus on establishing these dates first in order to get out in front of the schools. Hundreds of schools make this an annual tradition as the students look forward to the games every season.”
What makes it an educational day? Do you have any programs that run with the promotion?
“In the first couple of seasons, the school days were simply a day for the schoolkids to get out of school but we increasingly heard that the school needed and wanted some educational pieces in order to justify the time away from the classroom,” West Michigan’s Jim Jarecki wrote. “We came up with educational subjects and had staff members be the instructors. Kids would be provided packets and had to complete them prior to the game starting.
“Some subjects were math (figuring out batting averages, ERA, team winning percentages), geography (location of MWL teams and other MiLB and MLB teams), careers (front office employees), physical fitness (working out to play baseball), and science of baseball (pitch speed, velocity, bat speed). Overall, it provides the schoolkids with a very fun and interactive way to apply the normal textbook stuff to real life and in many cases, gets them more engaged in the process.”
“We do mix up the programming,” Northwest Arkansas’ Justin Cole wrote. “We send a brief packet to the participating schools but also do some pregame or in-game messaging. This season, we had three themes for the three games: one game’s theme was anti-bullying with messaging from our players on the videoboard. The other was a pregame weather demonstration, and the third was about a healthy diet and exercise with some messaging from our team on that as well.”
“Certainly, the schools appreciate there being some educational elements associated with the games,” Frisco’s Jason Dambach wrote. “In Frisco, we utilize our entertainment bandwidth to create educational content in a fun way around the content you are used to seeing at a ballgame. For example, running fun facts about each player’s hometown with his headshot or doing a baseball math tutorial between innings. We have also gone as far as creating a workbook for teachers that the students can bring and fill out during the game based on matching in-park content.”