Relocating minor league teams is a complicated matter, especially when it involves the construction of a new ballpark. So no move can be considered official until shovels hit the dirt and the moving trucks arrive.
The latest example of this truth might be playing out in Pueblo, Colo., whose status as the future home of the Orem Owlz appears to be in jeopardy. Just a little over a month ago, Pueblo officials were celebrating the news that Orem owner Jeff Katofsky had decided to move his team to Pueblo in 2020 and build a new ballpark and three hotels. Last night, however, local media began reporting that the deal might be off.
Depending on who you believe, Katofsky either has gotten cold feet or Pueblo officials have changed the terms of the deal. On Wednesday evening, the Pueblo Chieftian reported that the Owlz will not be coming to town after obtaining an email from a local housing director announcing that Katofsky had changed his mind.
The defending attendance champions might be down after a challenging start to the season, but they are not out of the running just yet.
The Indianapolis Indians topped the minors last season by averaging 9,159 fans per game but saw their chances of repeating take a significant hit during a cold and miserable month of April this season. The International League franchise has slowly and steadily chipped away at the lead held by the Charlotte Knights, Round Rock Express and Nashville Sounds, moving up from sixth place last week to fourth place in the current attendance standings.
Through Sunday’s games, the Indians were averaging 8,229 fans per game at Victory Field, trailing Charlotte (8,857), Round Rock (8,848) and Nashville (8,450). While the odds of closing the gap between the top three teams remain long—the Indians are currently about 25,000 fans off of their total from last season—a recent homestand in which the team averaged 10,423 fans per game has put them back in the running.
Mike Birling has been running arguably the most iconic franchise in minor league baseball for nearly the past two decades, the Durham Bulls, which was made famous by the classic movie “Bull Durham” 30 years ago and helped lead a revitalization of the sport 30 years ago. The team also helped kick start a ballpark building boom in the early 1990s, when they moved out of their quaint-yet-iconic home of Durham Athletic Park for the brand-new, downtown Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
What follows is my conversation with Birling, the Bulls’ vice president, about his path through the minors, the challenges and rewards of running a team as famous as the Bulls and the close relationship between the team and city. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity
How did a Wisconsin kid like yourself come to Durham? How did you break into the game and end up with the Bulls?
My story is probably like a billion others. You thought you could play sports and then you realized that you couldn’t play sports. I went to college at [the University of] Wisconsin-La Crosse. We had a CBA [the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association] team at the time. It was in La Crosse and it was one of the most successful basketball teams in that league at that time. I knew I wanted to be in sports. This was the mid- early 90s . . . So I did the old sports management and had a business admin minor. I knew I needed to get some experience so I went to work for this CBA team. And really it just got me hooked on sports.
Perhaps there is no better test for the quality of a minor league promotion than the opinion of your children. After all, minor league baseball bills itself as family friendly entertainment, so my trio of 14-, 12- and 10-year-olds should provide a pretty good barometer as to whether a promotion is going to be a hit or not.
This test becomes even more relevant when discussing the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ “Fortnite Day” promotion scheduled for this Sunday. Like just about every family household in America, ours has been invaded by Fortnite. My boys are obsessed with it. They play it whenever they are allowed; other times they seek out YouTube videos about playing it. I, on the other hand, am a Fortnite novice, knowing only that it does not appear violent and it somehow relates to the flossing dance I see kids doing everywhere—at the pool, grocery store, between pitches during Little League games.
So I turned to my boys to gauge their interest in the IronPigs’ Fortnite promotion, which includes the possibility of playing it on the team’s huge videoboard against actual professional gamers named Hectiic and FantasticalGamer and select IronPigs players. They smiled and nodded, acknowledging “cool” and “wow” as I filled them in on the details.
The minor leagues have experienced a similar dip at the gate, with attendance down 2.7 percent compared to this time last season. Minor league teams are averaging 3,898 fans per game this season through the month of June; last year they were attracting 4,004 fans at this time of year. The cause for the dip, however, is much clearer than their big league brethren’s decline. Simply put, the minors are still trying to recover from a cold, wet and miserable spring that led to the most April postponements in 11 years.
“Our product sells when the weather allows us to sell it properly,” said Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner, who noted that their business model is less reliant on wins and losses than the major leagues. “The next four to six weeks, that’s really where we can make some hay.”
Mike Nutter loves his job. That he is passionate about coming to the ballpark everyday, working with the staff and fans, and putting on a game night after night becomes clear during a 45-minute conversation with the president of the Fort Wayne TinCaps. He loved it when he was a college intern with the Kane County Cougars 27 years ago, he loved it when was a young staffer with the Brevard County Manatees and Nashville Sounds a few years later, and he still loves it today.
Nutter has used that passion to help turn the Fort Wayne TinCaps into one of the most consistent and successful franchises in the Midwest League and all of minor league baseball. Since leaving aging Memorial Stadium for the new, downtown Parkview Field in 2009, Fort Wayne has drawn no fewer than 378,000 fans in a season and has topped the 400,000 mark in each of the past five. Along the way, Nutter has won the Midwest League Executive of the Year Award three times—most recently in 2015.
What follows is my conversation with Nutter about his experiences in the game, his beliefs on how to be successful, why he loves minor league baseball so much and more. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
How did your path through minor league baseball lead to Fort Wayne? How long have you been there?
This is 19 seasons here. Nine at the old ballpark when we were the Wizards over at Memorial Stadium. And this is the 10th year here. And prior to that there were stops in Nashville, Tennessee for three, in ’97, ’98, ’99. Brevard County, Florida, in ’96. I joked with someone the other day that I am finally old enough where I worked for a team that went under. Then in ‘92, ‘93, ‘94, ‘95, working the summers out there with the Kane County Cougars. That’s where I fell in love with the game and thought that this might be a career. And here we are 27 years into it, and I am still having a blast, man.
The Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar released the five finalists for its top promotion for the month of June. The winner, to be announced next week, will receive an automatic berth into the coveted Golden Bobblehead competition at the Promo Seminar this September in Des Moines, Iowa. This month’s finalists include . . .
Not all minor league promotions are built to be outrageous. In fact, most teams dedicate several events to benefit their local community. The Toledo Mud Hens’ Project Playhouse Event at Fifth Third Field falls into that category.
Toledo welcomed 30 area businesses to the ballpark on an off day to build playhouses for local children in need. Row upon row of sawhorses filled the concourse, which echoed with the sounds of hammering and drilling, as the volunteers worked to build playhouses with a specific Lucas County child in mind. The team partnered with the Maumee Valley Habitat for Humanity for the event that garnered a wealth of local news coverage.
As the video below shows, the local community rallied for a good cause. Many of the participants are sponsors of the Mud Hens who got to see the ballpark in a new light.