By Eric Fetters Special to The Herald
On a pleasant summer’s night in Everett, sitting back with an ice cream sandwich and watching young professional baseball players battle on Memorial Stadium’s perfectly kept green grass is hard to beat.
That’s the product the Everett AquaSox baseball organization offers from mid-June through the start of September each year.
“My favorite thing about attending an Aquasox game with my boys is the option to sit in the grassy area just past the first-base line,” said Alyssa Miller of Lake Stevens, who has two sons. “It’s such a family-friendly seating area, with plenty of room for the kids to stretch out and even space for them to run around when they need a break from sitting and watching the game.”
Maintaining and improving on that family-friendly atmosphere has helped the AquaSox succeed in Everett for 29 summers dating back to 1984. But it takes year-round work in the team’s front office to attract new fans to the ballpark and to make sure old fans keep coming back.
“Getting fans through the gates is critical, because it drives almost every single financial decision we make,” said Brian Sloan, vice president of corporate partnerships for the AquaSox. “It’s the barometer you’re judged by at the end of the year, and it gives you confidence when approaching corporate sponsors.”
Sloan, who’s worked under all four of the AquaSox’s ownership groups during the past 17 years, said he’s always looking for new ways to market the team. For example, in recent years, the team has used Groupon and other online daily deal sites. Those are especially targeted at getting people who’ve never attended a game to try it out. Sloan added that the visibility alone from having the AquaSox name sent out to Groupon’s large subscriber base reaps some benefit. The team also has increased its advertising on local news websites.
The team also engages in plenty of low-budget, but highly visible “guerilla marketing” by appearing at community festivals and numerous other local events. The AquaSox pocket-sized schedules can be found at innumerable store checkouts, information desks and similar outlets around Snohomish County.
“All minor league teams need to do things like that, getting their staff out and immersed in the community as much as possible,” Sloan said. He pointed to the team’s extensive partnerships with two literacy programs, which reward children with ticket vouchers.
The goal of all those efforts is to keep the AquaSox in people’s minds when they’re looking for a fun summer’s night activity. Because the team’s biggest competitor isn’t the big league Mariners 25 miles down the freeway. Instead, the biggest foe is the other activities and entertainment that compete for people’s time, Sloan said.
When it comes to promoting AquaSox games as a relatively inexpensive and convenient venue for family fun, the front office has some advantages. Parking at the stadium is free and usually ample. Single-game tickets start at $8 per person — less than most movie tickets — even without discounts.
And once people come to an AquaSox game, Sloan said there are some simple rules the organization tries to follow, such as: everyone should get something for free. Under the team’s current owner — Stockton, Calif.-based 7th Inning Stretch LLC, headed by Tom Volpe — the team started printing and distributing free game programs to fans. That idea was borrowed from the two other minor-league teams owned by 7th Inning Stretch.
“The programs help get our story out and give exposure to our advertising partners,” Sloan explained, adding the team will print about 50,000 game programs over the season.
Additionally, the team’s current owners have introduced the Silver Sluggers Club, which gives ticket deals to fans age 60 and older, and a similar program for kids 12 and under. In 2010, the team’s ownership also invested in a new full-color videoboard in center field.
Then, there are the promotions — a big part of minor league baseball’s marketing game. The AquaSox try to think up new promotions while sticking to family friendly territory. Post-game fireworks and nights when kids can run around the infield after the game always help keep fans to the last out, while giveaways of hats, blankets and totebags can draw casual fans to specific games. Upcoming events include Ladies Night, the AquaSox fourth annual car show and Bark in the Park, when dogs are allowed in the stadium.
Sloan said the front office always is looking for new ideas and fan features. Even with the team’s standard nightly contests and promotions, the team tries to add some variety. “We want people to be able to go to the games and not always be able to expect the same things happening at the same time every night.”
Tom Lafferty, who’s served as the team’s public address announcer since its start in Everett, said there’s another overlooked feature at AquaSox games: the Fun Zone. The football practice field on the baseball stadium’s south side caters to children with bounce houses, games and plenty of space to run around or play catch when the on-field action bores them.
“The playfield really makes it a much nicer atmosphere in the stadium itself because the kids have someplace to go and run,” Lafferty said, who noted that it’s much better than having kids running loudly on the aluminum bleachers, as they do at other minor league stadiums in the league. “I think that’s been one of the keys all these years. It makes it better for the fans in the stands.”
The results of the team’s efforts, in terms of attendance, have been good. Last year, the AquaSox drew 96,345 fans to its 38 home games, for an average of 2,535 people per game, according to figures compiled by Minor League Baseball. Overall attendance was up 7 percent from 2010, thanks in part to a season without any games canceled due to bad weather.
That’s not been the case so far this year, as rain has rescheduled a few home games already. With just 38 home games each season in a Class A short-season league like the Northwest League, uncooperative weather can have a big impact on financial success. On the upside, the AquaSox clinched the first-half championship for its division in the league, guaranteeing Everett’s team will be in the playoffs when September comes. And the arrival of the Seattle Mariners’ touted first-round draft pick, catcher Mike Zunino, brought extra attention and fan buzz to the team in July.
Overall, Sloan said, the team’s happy with its stable attendance. From 1998 through 2008, the AquaSox drew more than 100,000 to Everett Memorial Stadium each summer. Since then, in the midst of a recession, the team’s annual attendance has hovered between 90,000 and 96,000 — putting it in the middle of the pack among the eight Northwest League teams.
It’s a far cry from the team’s origins. In late 1983, Bob and Margaret Bavasi brought Walla Walla’s former team, the Blue Mountain Bears, to Everett. In Walla Walla, the team had no major league affiliation, played in a tiny stadium and lost money. (From 1984 to 1994, the team was a minor-league affiliate of the San Francisco Giants and was known as the Everett Giants.)
After announcing their intentions to bring the team to Everett, the community stepped up and quickly made $250,000 worth of improvements to the Everett School District-owned stadium in time for the 1984 season. In the mid-1990s, Memorial Stadium was improved to minor league standards through a $5 million, bond-funded renovation.
The AquaSox’s relationship with the school district also has been key to its success. Lafferty said the district always has been open to considering the team’s ideas for improvements. “In return, they’ve got pretty much the nicest high school baseball stadium in the state,” he said.
Sloan and Lafferty also credit the AquaSox ownership throughout the years for keeping their eyes on the ball and building on successful strategies developed by their predecessors. Some of the front office staff has remained through several ownership changes.
“Bob and Margaret Bavasi put too much sweat equity into it for them to sell the team to someone who didn’t have the same passion that they did. And I think Mark Sperandio did the same thing when he sold it, and then I think the Carfagnas (who owned the team from 2004 to 2008) wanted to make sure it was in good hands as well,” Lafferty said.
Last year, Minor League Baseball’s teams drew in more than 41 million fans — more than the NBA or NHL — for the seventh year in a row. While the industry’s growth has slowed from its boom in the 1990s, it’s still attracting new investors and owners, as well as news sponsors and fans.
As for the Everett AquaSox, Sloan said the continued goal is to “over-deliver on value” for the fans. In the meantime, the Seattle Mariners announced several weeks ago that its affiliation with the AquaSox will continue through at least 2014. It’s a vote of confidence in the Everett team and its facilities, Sloan said.
“We have their trust about how we’ll handle their players and that our field’s in excellent condition,” he said. “It matters because the Mariners have millions of dollars invested in the players here.”