Tony Ensor and Mike Hobson are familiar with the baseball adage “if you build it, they will come.” Movie clichés aside, the respective general manager and assistant general manager of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox explain that building it is very different from filling it.
While many aspects of running a minor league baseball team are comparable to almost any small business — the organization has just over 20 full-time employees — there are more than enough knuckleballs involved to create some unique challenges.
The community cornerstone began its 27th season on the road Thursday before it will open at home April 11 against the Red Rock Express. While business has been steady over the last quarter century, it’s been within the last 10 years that the organization has really hit its stride.
Ensor and Hobson said the front office’s priority, its mantra really, is providing affordable family fun, which is especially important in a struggling economy.
The most expensive public admission tickets run $13 and the Sox offer specials nightly. From $2 Tuesdays — where parking, tickets and select beers are a couple of bucks — to the always-popular Friday night fireworks at no extra charge, there’s added value beyond the talent on the field. Value for the dollar is one reason the Sky Sox have seen a steady increase in attendance, capped by a record average of 5,181 people at games last year.
“When you do branded days of the week, it’s something people can sink their teeth into,” Ensor said. “They can put it on the calendar. If the Sky Sox are in town Friday, they know there will be fireworks that night. We have a fantastic staff who gets it and listens to the community. We’ve even changed game times to adapt to the community’s wants and built promotions around those wants.”
Hitting record per-game attendance was certainly no easy feat considering the team’s toughest opponent last season came in the form of inclement weather and wildfires.
“We didn’t meet the overall attendance record [last year], but we lost nine games [from the schedule] in 2013,” Hobson said. “There was snow in April and, like, 19 straight days of rain.”
The Black Forest Fire nearly cut into the season as well. Hobson said the front office debated canceling additional games as a sign of solidarity, but decided the better option would be to carry on and offer an escape to fire victims.
“We offered tickets to those affected and asked [fans] to bring donations of food,” Hobson said. “We wanted to make a positive impact.”
The park is also planning to bring back popular themed evenings this season, featuring the “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “Batman” universes, complete with elaborate costumes and story lines that allow for direct fan interaction.
One unique challenge, aside from natural forces, is a complete lack of control of management’s primary product — the team itself.
Ensor said decisions regarding on-field talent are left to the Colorado Rockies, and marketing that talent is difficult because the best are never in town for long. Fan experience, however, is within the front office’s control.
“From a facilities standpoint, we are working on a master plan for the next 25 years,” Ensor said. And while he’s not able to offer specifics yet, he said the team’s success over the last decade has allowed them the flexibility to improve those experiences. Since 2005, the Sox have added a new catering kitchen, an LED scoreboard, a rebranded logo, renovated suites and a new point of sales system to the concessions operations.
“Development is the role here,” Hobson said of the players. “But we can’t sell tickets around one or two stars year after year. You can still see great baseball played at a high level, though. We still have incredible talent.”
An additional challenge, and one the organization has capitalized on, is what to do with its amenities during the off-season.
“We’ve been successful with group outings,” Hobson said. “We have a banquet hall that’s available year-round. We do weddings, receptions, bar mitzvahs, networking breakfasts and holiday parties. We utilize the whole stadium. You can rent it and go on the field and play softball. We’ve had bounce houses in the outfield.”
No space goes to waste; even the parking lot is utilized for motorcycle training and an Oktoberfest celebration. Opportunities made available at the stadium have blurred the lines between sales and event planning, offering entertainment possibilities that are only “limited by the imagination,” he said.
During the season, the Sox are also partnering with Domino’s Pizza and CenturyLink to showcase local charities and small businesses.
The Charity Spotlight will provide philanthropic organizations with marketing opportunities, free of charge, at one of 30 Sky Sox home games. The package includes, in part, a marketing table along the stadium’s upper level concourse, four tickets to the game, a public address announcement, a radio plug and scoreboard recognition.
The small business marketing opportunity, sponsored by CenturyLink, is similar to the charity package, but will be available at 35 home games. Small businesses or charities can apply for the Small Business Spotlight or Charity Spotlight at www.skysox.com, where a nomination form will be posted. Members of the community can nominate their own business or charity or someone else’s.
For some time now, the city of Colorado Springs, the Sky Sox and its fans have flirted with the possibility of a minor league ballpark in the heart of downtown. That vision took on a brief new life with the introduction of the City for Champions project. The $250-million-proposal would include a U.S. Olympic Museum, a University of Colorado-affiliated sports medicine center, a new Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports and events center, which was seen as a prime opportunity to simultaneously move the Sky Sox into a brand new facility and boost downtown’s appeal and the city’s bottom line. Several factors quashed the project, though, before it ever took flight.
Strike one was called when the Colorado Economic Development Committee raised concerns regarding tourism as a funding catalyst for a minor league stadium. Some of the stadium’s projected $60.65 million cost would be covered by the Regional Tourism Act. To secure those funds, however, a new ballpark would have to attract out-of-state visitors. According to an October 2013 third-party analysis by Denver-based Economic and Planning Systems, Inc., “aggressive” yearly attendance projections at the downtown stadium, once stabilized, would be around 672,000, a 90 percent increase from current peak attendance.
For some perspective, Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, N.M. — a 13,000-seat, $25 million redevelopment of an older, out-of-date stadium — draws an average of 580,000 fans per season, one of the highest rates in the Pacific Coast League. Events are limited to baseball and the vast majority of attendees are not tourists. Albuquerque’s population is comparable to Colorado Springs.
“The City does not own or have an option to purchase a site for the stadium yet, so the costs could increase above what is budgeted,” the analysis stated. “The stadium would be funded with $42.5 million in City and Urban Renewal Authority Funds, comprising 70 percent of the stadium costs. RTA funding is assumed for 30 percent of the stadium cost.”
The EDC expressed its doubts that tourism would be a factor in nearly doubling current attendance, so RTA funding was suspect at best.
Strike two was called by the City. Uncertainty about projected attendance along with considerable infrastructure costs — streetscape improvements, a pedestrian bridge, utility infrastructure upgrades, a traffic signal and a parking structure — led to a discretely amended plan in 2013 that included a multi-purpose indoor and outdoor athletic complex that would better guarantee RTA funding … but it did not include a home for the Sky Sox.
Finally, strike three was called by the fans and ownership itself. Security Service Field owner Dave Elmore has a unique advantage in professional sports: he owns both the facility and the land on which it is built.
“There are maybe two or three cases like that in all of baseball,” Hobson said. “We don’t have to worry about the lease and negotiating extensions. From a business standpoint, there are definitely benefits from owning your own facility. We are asking now ‘What can we do here?’”
One answer to that question included $250,000 in off-season renovations, including new drainage, sod and grass for the outfield and dirt for the infield. Showing commitment to the current location, Hobson said approximately $10 million has been spent on renovations over the years, more than three times the stadium’s initial building costs.
With large financial investments already in place and revenue streams that essentially all flow to ownership, the question then became, “Why should the team move?” If you asked the fans, Ensor said, the answer was a resounding “It shouldn’t!”
“The fans spoke loudly,” Ensor said of the emails, phone calls and letters he’s received. “I’m very happy and humbled by the response from the community. Minor league baseball is not for the meek. It’s a tough road, but we get to come to this ballpark every day. I stand outside the stands at every [home] game and listen to fans. I get to talk to many of them. It makes it all worthwhile. It’s definitely validation from the community.”