JOLIET – It takes a lot more than just bats and gloves to get the crowd out to the old ball game these days.
For the Joliet Slammers, maintaining and expanding the fan base requires promotions and special events on a daily basis, a food and drink menu that caters to local tastes and wallets, and alternative events that have little in common with America’s favorite pastime.
“Baseball is only the lion show in the circus,” said Josh Schaub, Slammers CEO and co-owner. “We do so much more than that.”
This month, for instance, the Slammers hosted a Princess Night on Aug. 1, which brought out younger girls and their families to Silver Cross Field.
“The girls [wore] their princess outfits and qualified to win a free ticket to a future game,” said Heather Mills, the team’s box office manager.
Queen Elsa from the Disney film “Frozen” made an appearance, much to the delight of a bevy of costumed girls. The evening ended in fireworks, choreographed to Disney princess songs.
Promotions give the Slammers a chance to reach a variety fans of different age groups with different interests.
Princess Night gave way to NASCAR Night the next evening, followed by a Slammers bobblehead giveaway Aug. 9. The August lineup will close out with a Jimmy Buffett Night on Aug. 21 and a Halloween Night for kids Aug. 29.
“It might reach some people who typically wouldn’t come out to a baseball game,” Mills said.
Themed-nights play a major role in attracting new fans, especially children, Mills said. Past promotions that have been particularly successful include Zombie Night, which pulled in 3,512 fans, “Star Wars” Night at 3,359, and “Harry Potter” Night at 3,036. That’s a big boost from the average attendance of 2,028.
A lot of events still are based on trial and error. The July 14 Battle of the Sexes, which pitted the Slammers against the Dutch National Fastpitch Softball Team, is a good case in point. The game drew a lot of interest from area softball teams, though not so much from regular fans. Only 688 turned out for the event.
“Obviously we’re always looking for a bigger crowd, but the people who were here loved it,” Mills said. “We’re hoping to build on it in the future.”
But like a manager opting for a hit and run, the Slammers appear willing to shift positions when something isn’t working.
Take the team’s much-heralded beer garden, which offered five craft beers and an all-you-can-eat menu for $38. Turns out that not that many fans wanted to suck down five bottles of suds during a three-hour game. So the Slammers promptly changed the venue to individual beer sales, with a $28 all-you-can-eat menu.
Every home game on the Slammers schedule has its own promotion, offering everything from cash and merchandise giveaways, to $2 admission and $10 in casino slot play, to free food and cheap beers.
Another new promotion is the Absolutely Amazing August cash giveaway, which the Slammers plan to award a fan a cash prize of $250 to $5,000, depending on announced attendance, during home games in August and September.
“The main purpose is just to get people to come to the stadium,” Schaub said.
The strategy appears to be working.
“This year ticket sales are up 8 percent year over year,” Schaub said. “Last year it was up 10 percent.”
That’s a far cry from the recession years, when minor league attendance dropped 2.1 percent.
“[The year] 2008 was a catalyst for this industry. It made people get lean,” Schaub said. “The teams that failed then failed over making business decisions to expand into other areas. Now it’s all about extra events.”
For the Slammers, such events include a pair of concerts featuring country star Eric Hutchinson on Aug. 15 and southern rock band The Georgia Satellites on Aug. 16, and Hopstring Fest, an Aug. 23 celebration of craft beer and roots rock now in its second year.
“Concerts are a new business for us,” Schaub said. “People need to start seeing us as a concert venue to create the draw. It’s going to take some time to grow concerts and other types of activities.”
The Slammers also are looking for ways to expand their season with other sports program. They plan to host a futsal, or five-player soccer, tournament in the fall, with University of St. Francis baseball taking the field in early March.
“We want to be out there as soon as the snow melts and until the snow flies,” Schaub said.