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For now, Suns owners want new fans more than a new stadium

March 25, 2002|BY TIM ROWLAND

For now, Suns owners want new fans more than a new stadium

The Hagerstown Suns have been on the front page of the local paper twice, made the newswires and even got a mention in Sports Illustrated magazine. Enemies of local professional baseball are worried enough to begin ginning up their letter-to-the-editor mills. And the home season doesn't even start until April 8.

This is what in the marketing business is known as buzz.

Buzz is good, even if the buzz is bad. When the Suns floated the idea of passing out an Osama bin Laden bobblehead doll at an upcoming game - to be smashed and dismembered according to the taste of the individual fan - the community frowned and the Suns quickly scuttled the idea.

Whether Bobble bin Laden was ever a serious idea or just a plan to get people thinking about the new-look Hagerstown Suns a month prior to Opening Day is something probably known only to Kurt Landes and Michael Swope, the Suns new general and assistant-general managers.

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But by the time it had run its course, the scheme had merited a mention in SI and a few hundred people had visited the Hagerstown Suns Website (www.hagerstownsuns.com) to cast their vote.

The Website has a countdown to the home-opening day - 18 days, 5 hours, 56 minutes and 39 seconds as of this writing - and the latest vote-upon gimmick cooked up by Landes/Swope and company: A "hot tub party area" at the stadium. This one's doing better than the doll, with 56 percent saying it's "a terrific idea."

If hot tubs and Osama dolls give some people fits, this new Suns braintrust seems not to take offense, as did the old. They may even be excused for secretly enjoying negative letters to the editor from people who write as if they're getting paid by the error. Any publicity, after all, is good publicity.

Even so, many folks have legitimate concerns about new-stadium construction, the most important of which is that it would be folly to build a new stadium if the old one is only attracting a few hundred fans a night.

Some would support a new stadium no matter what; some would oppose one no matter what. But the reasonable middle ground seems to be this: Some public assistance for a new stadium is justified on two, non-negotiable conditions. 1. The owners put up a significant chunk of their own money. 2. It can be demonstrated that thousands of people - not hundreds - will benefit.

So perhaps it's heartening for both opponents and supporters that an hour into a recent discussion with Landes and Swope about the Hagerstown Suns, the matter of a new stadium hadn't come up.

The Suns' brass was too busy, and it seemed too excited, discussing their plans for bringing more fans into the old - I think the preferred word used by columnists here would be "venerable" - Municipal Stadium.

Like the previous Suns ownership, the new guys want to build a stadium. Unlike the previous owners, they believe they have something to prove to the community first.

It's a smart way to go about the stadium issue, and it's also smart for their own business interests.

Former owner Winston Blenckstone believed the a new stadium necessary to improve attendance. Blenckstone's assessment was consultant- and numbers-driven. Performance in other communities indicated that a new stadium would generate enough interest in minor league baseball to put a couple thousand fans in the stands each night. Ominously though, these same consultants' reports showed that attendance began to wane once the novelty of a new stadium wore off.

Like many sports purists, Blenckstone seemed to consider the marketing angle a burden. Landes and Swope seem to consider chasing new fans as part of the game.

Along with the wacky stuff, they have some good, solid proposals for drawing people into the stadium for the first time. For example, kids who bring their March or end-of-year report cards to the box office will receive a free ticket per A grade. Schoolkids will also be invited to interactive "classrooms" at a game, where learning and sport will be intertwined.

This attention to Washington County kids shows a couple things: One, the team is looking long-range - the idea does not appear to be to put in a quick season in Hagerstown then move on to the highest-bidding community. Interesting kids in baseball at an early age is something that pays dividends years down the road. And in the more immediate future, kids may nag their parents into going to a game.

When a student visits a minor league baseball game, Landes says the chances are nine in 10 it is for the first time. That's the purpose of promotions. It's not, as some have wrongly asserted, to get people to come out to witness a one-time gimmick.

It may take a zany promotion to attract people to the stadium for the first time. But at least a few of the people who come for the promotion will stay for the baseball, after they discover game itself can be a highly relaxing and enjoyable out-of-doors experience for families whose imaginations go a little beyond a couch and television set.

Landes and Swope make no bones about the need to improve attendance in the old stadium if Hagerstown baseball is to survive to see a new. They are putting themselves on the spot and as the season rolls on their success or failure will be there in the stands for everyone to see. It may not work. Perhaps Hagerstown just isn't a professional baseball city. But if the Hagerstown Suns go on to become the Someothertown Suns, it won't be because Landes and Swope didn't pour their hearts into trying to make a market for them here.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Write c/o 100 Summit Ave, Hagerstown, MD, 21740 or e-mail timr@herald-mail.com.

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