Colorado Springs Sky Sox winning the business game

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Sky Sox President and General Manager Tony Ensor.

Sky Sox baseball is all about the game — but it’s not the game you might expect.

Sure, it’s America’s favorite pastime, rich with history of the iconic dugout, mound and diamond where minor-league players hustle toward a shot of getting called up to the big leagues.

But it’s also a business game, an effort to lure crowds of thousands with inexpensive promotional offers who are then contained for nine innings of advertising and grabs at their cash.

It’s the game of big business that minor league baseball clubs across the country play — and win by making cash hand over fist.

Sky Sox President and General Manager Tony Ensor knows it’s a solid business model.

“We know where our niche is from a business stand point — that is that we provide more value than you could ever pay for . . . so people feel like they have had an experience when they come out here,” he said.

Ensor won’t say just how much profit the Sky Sox pull in, but a look at some of the organization’s numbers, gives a general idea.

This year, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox baseball club is celebrating its 25th anniversary and the sales team is preparing for the 2012 season with bigger promotions and more give-aways, like bobble heads and baseball card collections, than in years past.

The club has worked to market itself as affordable, family friendly entertainment. It offers kids-eat-free Mondays, $2 Tuesdays, micro brew Thursdays and the club will throw a birthday party for 10 people for $170.

All the special promo nights help fill the stadium with a captive audience, of which local businesses have the eyes and ears of thousands for more than three hours. That means score board messages, signs along the outfield, print advertisement in the game-day magazine and sponsorship of special events like the Saturday night fireworks shows. A double billboard sells for $8,750 and event night packages start at $2,750.

“Last year, we had 339,000 people out here,” Ensor said. “That is a great way for businesses to get their message out to an audience and we have the vehicle to do that.”

It’s a great business model: get more fans to get more sponsors.

Minor League Baseball clubs are independently owned but affiliated with a Major League Baseball franchises, which picks up the tab on all player and staff salaries. That means that the minor league clubs are responsible only for operating costs.

“They can’t control what is on the field,” said Steve Densa, Minor League Baseball executive director of communications. “They can control everything else. That is where they can excel and make their money — the giveaways, the concerts — they can get creative.”

According to Forbes, the top 20 Minor League Baseball clubs pull in close to $10 million a year in revenue, with about half of that coming from ticket sales.

Ensor declined to discuss the Sky Sox club’s annual budget or revenue. But, he said his goal is to increase revenue by 5 to 7 percent a year.

“We like to think we are on the upper part of the curve as far as our business operation goes,” he said.

This year, the Sky Sox club already is 3 percent up in sales over where it was at this time last year, Ensor said. About one third of the Sky Sox revenue is from ticket sales, one third from advertising and promotions and one third from game day and off game day revenue, he said.

“Our goal is to put together a great product in the stadium, on the field with our promotions and marketing and everything else,” Ensor said. “If we do what we are supposed to do, constantly improving ourselves and constantly changing what we do providing more for the fans, then profitability will come with that.”

The Sky Sox have 72 game nights in the coming season with six military-appreciation days ready for the promotions and corporate sponsors to swoop in, Ensor said. And, the stadium is open year-round for parties and events.

“We create plans that every business in Colorado Springs could be involved with — everything from as low as $500 up the naming rights,” Ensor said.

That’s entertainment

Minor League Baseball has shaken its image of old broken-down stadiums with shabby bleachers and dusty parking lots. Today’s minor league stadiums are just smaller versions of the majors, Densa said.

Security Service Field, where the Sky Sox play, was built in 1988 on the east side of Colorado Springs. Over the years, the original $3.7 million stadium has undergone millions in renovations including the addition of a full service kitchen, installing an LED score board and the addition of a Major League Baseball-style ticket purchasing program.

Across the country, Minor League Baseball is defying the economic downturn, Densa said. In the past nine of 10 years, attendance has gone up across the board with more than 41 million fans attending a minor league game last season. The league attributes the growing fans to the low cost of the entertainment.

“In the midst of a recession, Minor League Baseball saw a 5 percent increase in gross revenues for the 2010 season,” said Pat O’Conner, Minor League Baseball president. “This illustrates the effectiveness of our business model, the soundness of our business practices, the quality of our product and our place in the American economy.”

With the Sky Sox in one of the smallest markets in the country, it means fan-loyalty is at an even higher premium, Ensor said.

“That’s why we work so hard to provide entertainment,” Ensor said.

And, it’s working. Sky Sox fans are flocking to Security Service Field. Attendance has gone up four of the last five years, Ensor said. A family of four can attend a Sky Sox game for less than $60 — and that includes the cost of hot dogs and drinks.

That is less than the cost of a night at the movies for a family of four, Ensor said.

The Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball club has four other “farm teams” with ball players in development. In 2007, 22 of the Rockies’ 25-man World Series roster were former Sky Sox players. That’s where the excitement comes, Ensor said. Fans never know if they could be watching the next Todd Helton, a former Sky Sox player and now five-time Major League Baseball All-star.

In January, the Sky Sox and the Colorado Rockies extended their player development contract through 2014. That’s good news for Sky Sox bottom line, Ensor said.

“That has our fan base really excited,” Ensor said.

Still, the Sky Sox have learned to market the team and not the players, who could at any moment in the season be called up to the Rockies or any other team. Two years ago, the Sky Sox rebranded the team with a new logo and color scheme — something that helped move merchandise.

“Merchandise sales are an indicator that you have a great logo,” Ensor said. “It’s a great indicator of what the fans feel about you out in the community. Our merchandise sales have increased every year since 2009.”

Ensor, who took over as the Sky Sox general manager in 2005, understands that running a minor league baseball franchise is like running a business, he said. His 20-member staff spends months developing the promotional and marketing program that attracts corporate sponsors and sells the luxury suites at $650 a game for a party of 12.

In December, the club was recognized by Baseball America with the 2011 Bob Freitas Award for its long-term business success and consistent operational excellence. Ensor called it a community award because without the fans there would be no corporate sponsors or sales.

“We are given that opportunity by our fans to rise to the level that we are able to do,” he said.

As for the coming season, which gets started in April, “it is the best schedule I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Ensor said. “We have 20 home dates in our first 60 days — that means 52 games after June 1. It will be a huge summer of entertainment and fun and great baseball.”