By Eric Fetters HBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — 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 that family-friendly atmosphere has helped the AquaSox succeed in Everett since 1984. But it takes year-round work in the team’s front office to attract new fans and to keep old fans 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 in the past 17 years, said he always looks for new ways to market the team. In recent years, he has used Groupon and The Herald’s online daily deal sites to draw people who’ve never attended a game. He said that just the visibility of having the AquaSox name sent to Groupon’s large subscriber base reaps some benefit. The team also has increased its advertising on local news websites.
The team engages in plenty of low-budget, highly visible guerrilla marketing by appearing at community festivals and other local events. The AquaSox pocket-sized schedules are dotted all over 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 activity. The team’s biggest competitor isn’t the big-league Mariners 25 miles down I-5. It’s all 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 can tout free parking at the stadium and single-game ticket prices of $8 per person before discounts.
Sloan said AquaSox staff follows simple rules, including: 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 giving free game programs to fans, an idea it 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 said.
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 video board in center field.
Promotions are a big part of minor league baseball’s marketing game. The AquaSox try to think up new promotions that fits its family-friendly goals. Post-game fireworks and nights when kids can run around the infield help keep fans. Giveaways of hats, blankets and tote bags can draw casual fans. Upcoming events include Ladies Night, a car show and Bark in the Park, when fans can bring their dogs to the stadium.
“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,” Sloan said.
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 field on the stadium’s south side caters to kids with bounce houses, games and space to run around when baseball action slows.
“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. “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 with no weather cancellations.
That’s not been the case this year. With just 38 home games in the Class A Northwest League’s short season, bad weather can hamstring a team’s finances. This season, the AquaSox already have buzz from clinching the first-half division championship, guaranteeing a spot in the September playoffs, and the arrival of the Mariners’ first-round draft pick, Mike Zunino.
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 year. Since the recession hit in 2009, annual attendance has hovered between 90,000 and 96,000, putting it in mid-pack among the eight Northwest League teams.
In late 1983, Bob and Margaret Bavasi brought Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Bears to Everett. The community quickly made $250,000 in improvements to Everett School District-owned Memorial Stadium for the 1984 season. In the mid-1990s, the stadium was improved again with a $5 million, bond-funded renovation.
The AquaSox’s relationship with the school district also has been key. 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.
“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.
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 in a vote of confidence in the Everett team and its facilities.
“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.”
Compare the NWL teams
The Everett AquaSox are one of eight teams in the Northwest League, one of two Class A Short Season leagues in Minor League Baseball. Here are the other league teams, ranked by 2011 attendance:
2011 home attendance: 183,458
Owner: Brett Sports &Entertainment
Affiliation: Texas Rangers
Vancouver (B.C.) Canadians
2011 home attendance: 162,162
Owner: Vancouver Professional Baseball Partnership
Affiliation: Toronto Blue Jays
2011 home attendance: 114,690
Owner: Elmore Sports Group Ltd.
Affiliation: San Diego Padres
2011 home attendance: 105,973
Owner: Jerry Walker and William Tucker
Affiliation: San Francisco Giants
2011 home attendance: 98,860
Owner: Boise Baseball LLC
Affiliation: Chicago Cubs
2011 home attendance: 96,345
Owner: 7th Inning Stretch LLC
Affiliation: Seattle Mariners
Tri-City Dust Devils
2011 home attendance: 85,953
Owner: George Brett/Northwest Baseball Ventures
Affiliation: Colorado Rockies
2011 home attendance: 66,545
Owner: Short Season LLC
Affiliation: Arizona Diamondbacks
Note: The Bears will move to Hillsboro, Ore., in 2013.