By Eric Fetters For the Weekly 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.
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.
“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.
Then, there are the promotions – a big part of minor league baseball’s marketing game. 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.
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 some place to go and run,” Lafferty said, who noted that it’s much better than having kids running loudly on the aluminum bleachers.
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, 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.