by Michael Bradley
Special to Delaware Business Times
The last thing Dave Heller wants a 10-year old at a Wilmington Blue Rocks game to worry about is who won the game. After an evening of cavorting in the bounce house, scarfing down a donut dog and perhaps watching the cowboy monkey rodeo, the youngster should ask just one question:
“When can we go back?”
That’s how it is for the Class A minor-league baseball team, an affiliate of the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals. Players may come and go, but the show definitely goes on.
“The best analogy I can give is that we are running the largest restaurant in Wilmington, Del., and the players are the cover band,” said Heller, the president and CEO of Main Street Baseball, the Blue Rocks’ owner. “Who the band members are and who gets up and sings, we have no ability to control that.”
It’s true. Heller and the rest of the Blue Rocks team don’t pick the players, trade them or decide when it’s time to move them up the organizational food chain or out of town. They provide the venue and the promotional fun, and the players play. It’s a relationship at which Heller excels. Main Street Baseball owns five different minor league franchises, and Heller understands that the goal of teams like the Blue Rocks is to offer a baseball entertainment experience. Sure, there are people who root, root, root for the home team. But the vast majority of this year’s average crowd of 4,316 fans at Daniel S. Frawley Stadium came for the fun, with baseball an ancillary concern.
“Our goal and mission is to provide affordable, family-friendly entertainment to Delaware and the four-state [Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland] area,” Heller said.
That sentiment is echoed in Newark, where the Delaware 87ers, the NBA Philadelphia 76ers’ affiliate, play ball. Using promotions, community involvement and in-game fun, the franchise aims to build awareness and attract fans by mixing the bouncing ball with a festival atmosphere.
Sports purists may blanche at the idea of coaxing customers to games with outrageous concession items, dog-riding capuchin monkeys and any variety of sideshow attractions designed to distract fans from what is actually happening on the court or field. But at a time when people’s phones can entertain them for hours at a time, the game isn’t necessarily the thing — especially when it isn’t a big-league version.
“We offer families the chance to be entertained in an atmosphere that is safe, fun and won’t break the bank,” 87ers team president Larry Meli said. “We have a Kids Zone where we paint faces, there is a moon bounce and kids can shoot baskets. Afterwards, fans can get autographs from the players.”
The “Sevens” began play in 2013 and have made University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center home since their inception. They have worked over the past three years to create a family environment on the court and a civic-minded personality off it. Meli reports the team stages 150 community events each year, and every team employee is required to dedicate 87 hours a year to the charitable efforts. The franchise works with schools, stages health and wellness clinics, visits children’s hospitals and teams with armed services groups to make as big an impact on the state as possible. It invites nonprofits to games and assists in their efforts to raise funds and awareness. “It’s the power of sports,” Meli said. “It helps us provide a sense of community to connect with other people.”
Like the Blue Rocks, the Sevens have no control over their roster. Unlike its baseball counterpart, the team is comprised almost entirely of free agents. Although some of the players’ rights are controlled by the 76ers, most can be called up by any NBA club. Since that environment doesn’t necessarily create a steady basketball bond between fans and the franchise, it’s important for the 87ers to sell the sport’s excitement and the fact that their players are trying to “realize their dreams”.
The combination of watching potential NBA players in “the second greatest basketball league in the world,” according to Meli, in an atmosphere that is decidedly family-friendly has proven successful. The 87ers have experienced 50 percent attendance growth since their first season.
The Blue Rocks also enjoy robust crowds, too, and not just when the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo comes to town. That’s always a standing-room experience, and the Blue Rocks staged that promotion five times during the 2016 season, which ended in late August. The team ranked third in the Carolina League in average attendance this year, although some other teams have been known to inflate their numbers. Wilmington has been second or third in attendance each of the last seven years and topped out at 4,658/night in 2011. Still, despite a very rainy April and May that forced the cancellation of six games, this season the team increased its sponsorships and season ticket sales. “By all metrics, 2016 was a very good year,” Heller said.
Both franchises understand that the key to their success — in addition to moon bounces, a slew of promotions and concession items like the Blue Rocks’ “Sweenie Donut Dog,” a hot dog with bacon in a jelly donut – is a friendly staff. The 87ers stage day games that allow school students to attend as part of field trips. And Heller says that he expects fans to be greeted by a number of different staff members before they even get close to their seats.
“Hopefully, our fans are going to encounter the friendliest staff they would ever find at any sporting event in the mid-Atlantic region,” he said.
Meli wants young fans who attend 87ers games to remember their first times. He looks at a visit to the Bob as an early step “in the life cycle of a fan.” The Sixers help enhance that experience by providing financial assistance that has gotten the Sevens “through our early years,” according to Meli. The goal moving forward is to become a dedicated affiliate of the Big Club. “The Sixers have brighter days ahead, and that will trickle down to us,” Meli said.
Both franchises are dedicated to providing an experience for fans, sponsors and community groups that is memorable, reasonably priced and about much more than sports. The teams may have official “minor league” designations, but their goals are more ambitious.
“One of the things [Sixers CEO] Scott O’Neil said is that progress matters each year, in every aspect,” Meli said. “We have to make sure we are getting better each and every day, whether that is financially, on the court or in the community.”