Mike McNair can vividly remember time spent with his father at Hartwell Field taking in a Mobile Bears game in the late 1950s.
When Mobile’s Double-A baseball team paid homage to those roots in 1997 by taking the name BayBears, McNair was there and has been an ardent supporter ever since. While attending a recent BayBears game against the Jacksonville Suns, McNair said he’d be disappointed if the team ever left.
“I think we need to keep the team and if we need to spend a few dollars to fix up the stadium, then do it,” McNair said.
Last week, City Councilman John Williams made comments referring to the sale of the team. Afterward, he walked back those comments after hearing from BayBears General Manager Chris Morgan, who has repeatedly and vigorously denied rumors the team has been sold or is relocating.
With the lowest attendance in the Southern League and a 20-year-old stadium, it’s not hard to imagine the eventual exodus of Mobile’s last professional sports franchise, but things might be turning around.
The BayBears rank last in average Southern League attendance per game at 1,724. The other two Alabama teams rank much higher, with the Montgomery Biscuits at fifth place with 3,757 and the Birmingham Barons leading the league at 6,675 per game.
Morgan said the team is focusing on the improvements they’ve made over last year and not how they compare to others in the league.
“If we average 400 or 500 more a game we’ll still be ninth in the league,” Morgan said. “We’re just working to improve every game and get more people in the park than last year.”
Attendance has improved for the BayBears compared to last year’s numbers. According to the Southern League website, Mobile had an average of 1,553 fans per game walk through the gates in 2015. This year’s total is also more than in 2014, when the BayBears ranked ninth in attendance with 1,687 fans per game. The last-place team in 2014, the Huntsville Stars, are now the Biloxi Shuckers.
“We want to show improvement,” Morgan said. “We want to show progress and we’re trying to make positive changes.”
Morgan said he was pleased walk-up attendance for the team was up “significantly” more than last season. One reason for the increase, he said, was a more aggressive email and social media marketing campaign. In addition, he said, the BayBears now have signs at McGowin Park on game days to let visitors know the team is playing. He also said the team’s relationship with local media is stronger than it has been in years.
Morgan said the park has improved its concessions as well, which could be attracting more fans. McNair said as a fan, the food used to be a problem.
“I think part of it is — and Mr. Morgan is working on this — part of it was the concessions,” he said. “I think they’re better this year.”
Mark Lyberger, a sports marketing professor at Kent State University and co-author of the book “Sports Marketing: A Strategic Perspective,” wrote in an email that concessions can be an important aspect of a minor league team’s marketing strategy.
“In today’s marketplace, price, range of offerings and service serve as maximizers that enhance the fan experience,” he wrote. “Many ballparks today serve as food and beverage destinations, serving bold local flavors that consumers enjoy. The ultimate goal is to elevate the fan experience for everyone, enriching the exposure, interaction and array of offerings of local flavors.”
Many teams are embracing their concessions. For instance, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos — second in the Southern League for attendance at 4,421 per game — employ a chef, who routinely creates specials based on the teams the club plays during each homestand, team spokeswoman MaryJane Gardner said. In a recent series with the Biscuits, Chef Travis Wilson created a biscuit burger, Gardner said. In addition to homestand specials, the Blue Wahoos’ concession stands feature Cracker Jack Chicken and Waffles, and a Bubba Dub burger, named for part-owner and professional golfer Bubba Watson, featuring hashbrowns.
Morgan complimented the Blue Wahoos on their concessions before noting Hank Aaron Stadium offers a Conecuh sausage dog to capitalize on local flavors. He said the BayBears would have to focus on the basics before possibly moving on to more elaborate fare.
“We have to crawl before we walk,” Morgan said. “We might get to that point, but we want to make sure we master the basics first.”
At the urging of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration and the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team’s Major League affiliate, the city has already committed to almost $500,000 in upgrades to Hank Aaron Stadium. That initial expenditure was put toward lighting, upgrades to the on-field audio system and field rail padding. This month the council approved more than $20,000 for engineering and design work on field drainage improvements. The city expects the work to cost about 10 times that amount.
Despite support from most of the council to make the improvements, Councilwoman Bess Rich has criticized the moves because the team still owes the city roughly $125,000 in unpaid rent. While the club is currently making quarterly rent payments of $25,000 each, Stimpson’s office has said the BayBears don’t intend to pay the back rent until the improvements are completed.
In addition to the drainage improvements, the club has asked the city to improve stadium seating. Morgan said the current seating was meant to last 10 years but has been in the stadium since it was built.
Morgan said the club wouldn’t be asking the city for the improvements to the park if a sale was imminent or the team was planning to leave.
Regardless of the reassurances, the persistent rumors of the team’s departure make some fans nervous. Donna Ellis, who was watching a recent game in the grandstands with her husband, Bob, said the rumor “makes you walk on eggshells.”
“I’d hate to see them leave, but I don’t know what the answer is,” Ellis said.
With the first pitch taking place in 1997, Hank Aaron Stadium is the oldest stadium in the Southern League by one year. The only other stadium close in age to the home of the BayBears is The Ballpark at Jackson in Jackson, Tennessee, where the first pitch took place in 1998. The next-oldest stadiums, also in Tennessee — AT&T Field in Chattanooga and Smokies Stadium in Kodak — were built in 2000.
In addition to newer stadiums, some teams relocated to other areas of the city or market. For instance, the Birmingham Barons moved from Regions Park at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium to the newly built $64 million Regions Field in downtown Birmingham in 2013 and immediately saw a boost in attendance — from 3,004 fans per game in 2012 to 5,669 in 2013. The Barons now lead the league in attendance.
New Southern League stadiums are also being built in desirable locations. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos moved into a waterfront stadium in downtown Pensacola in 2012 and the Biloxi Shuckers moved into MGM Park near that city’s casinos and coastline last year. Those parks cost $23 million and $36 million, respectively.
While it seems like a nice idea for the BayBears, Bob Ellis said he wasn’t completely sold on a waterfront stadium in Mobile.
“It might be more comfortable to have the breezes; but no, I think this is a more convenient location than either one of those,” he said.
While a new stadium did give the Barons a dramatic boost in attendance, Morgan said the BayBears make “the best of the fact this stadium is 20 years old.” Despite the age of the stadium, Morgan said the team gets “more positive than negative” reviews on it.
“We work hard to make sure it’s clean and it looks great,” he said.
A ‘cluster’ of teams
Long after the BayBears organization staked its claim along the Gulf Coast, a team sprang up in Pensacola. Owners Quint and Rishy Studer purchased a team out of North Carolina and relocated it to the Florida Panhandle, naming it the Blue Wahoos. In an email message, Quint Studer wrote the Blue Wahoos had to purchase territorial rights to Escambia County, Florida, from the BayBears.
At the time Bill Shanahan, then-general manager of the Bay Bears, felt “less than 1 percent of fans came from this area, with little or no sponsorship dollars,” Studer explained.
Wahoos’ CEO Bruce Baldwin said the team had to purchase the rights because of both cities’ proximity to Baldwin County.
Studer said he doesn’t think the existence of a Pensacola team has much of an impact on the BayBears.
“We get very few fans from Mobile and I feel Mobile gets few fans from here,” he wrote. “When teams play each other this goes up slightly, however not significantly. I don’t feel [the] Wahoos have had any negative impact on [the] BayBears and maybe a slight positive impact.”
In addition to Pensacola, the Huntsville Stars franchise moved to Biloxi at the start of last season.
Donna Ellis suggested the two newer teams in newer stadiums were a reason attendance in Mobile was lagging behind. Lyberger said there is evidence teams in a “cluster,” within 20 to 50 miles of one another, have a negative impact on each other.
“There are clusters around the country and they end up competing against themselves, rather than each having a defined market,” he said.
From 1997 to 2012 there wasn’t a team within 170 miles of Mobile, Morgan said. Attendance at BayBears games dropped by 30 percent in Pensacola’s first year as a team. In 2011, the BayBears had more than 3,050 fans per game. In 2012, that number dropped to 2,112, Morgan said.
The team attracted many large groups from the Florida Panhandle and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which moved to the other teams when they joined the league. Regardless, Morgan said, the market should be big enough for everyone.
“It’s hard to say it hurt us,” Morgan said. “I think we can coexist. There are certainly enough people in this market; we should be able to draw better than we do.”
In addition to fireworks on Friday nights and “Thirsty Thursdays” featuring drink specials, Morgan said the team would try to lure fans with a number of promotions through the second half of the season. He said Saturdays would be the team’s theme night. One theme night they’re already promoting will be “Star Wars” night in July. The BayBears are also offering “One Buck Wednesdays,” which features $1 hot dogs and other concession items.
The team is promoting two-for-one Tuesdays, which allows fans to buy two tickets for the price of one and college night on Thursdays, when a student with an identification card gets two-for-one tickets.