Focusing on the fans

December 05, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

HAGERSTOWN - A funeral giveaway, 3D fireworks, a scoreboard cowboy ... Hagerstown Suns General Manager Kurt Landes likes that the Class A minor league baseball franchise has a reputation for doing wacky stuff.

"You want your fans to wonder what's coming next," said Landes, 31, of Hagerstown.

The funeral giveaway contest and the return of Hall of Famer Willie Mays to Hagerstown were two events Landes organized in the last two years that brought the Suns and Hagerstown national attention.

The attention Landes brought to the area and the efforts he made that revitalized the franchise were reasons Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce official Doug Wright Jr. said earlier this year that Landes was chosen as the Chamber's Business Person of the Year.


That honor was a huge surprise and the professional accomplishment that has meant the most to him personally, Landes said this past week as he sat in his office at Municipal Stadium.

Since becoming general manager of the Suns in late summer 2001, Landes has increased attendance from 100,690 people the season before he took over to 128,508 people this past season, he said.

Attendance increased this season by 27 percent, although rainouts affected 2003's attendance numbers.

Total fan participation

To increase attendance beyond the hard-core baseball fans, Suns management markets the atmosphere beyond the game and tries to get as many fans involved as they can, he said.

It's a philosophy Landes calls "Total Fan Participation" and a strategy successful enough to garner him an invitation to speak to his minor league peers at baseball's national convention during the winter meetings in New Orleans last year.

Landes directs Suns personnel to do as many things for youths as possible and make the atmosphere as entertaining as possible.

The annual Education Days don't generate much revenue for the team, but the two days allow the Suns to give back to the community, Landes said.

Landes came up with the idea while with the Akron (Ohio) Aeros of the Class AA Eastern League.

For $1 each, students come to the ballpark for an early Suns game and learn at the same time. The Suns supply teachers with curriculum guides and students with homework so they can use baseball to learn math, science, language arts and social studies.

Another one of his promotions was having fans take turns helping with the radio broadcast of Saturday night home games from the picnic area.

"I marvel at his creativity," said Rich Neumann, vice president of development for Mandalay Baseball Properties.

Apparently, so have others because Suns' promotions are being "stolen" by other teams, Landes said.

This past week, a team inquired about the Suns' scoreboard cowboy, interested in developing a scoreboard character of its own, Landes said.

Other teams also are interested in the Suns manually-operated scoreboard, the outdoor radio broadcast booth and funeral promotion ideas.

"It's the best form of flattery," said Landes, who considers himself a "head thief."

Under Landes' leadership the Suns have won two Veeckie awards by ESPN The Magazine for promotions.

In 2002, the team won a Veeckie promotional award for having the youngest broadcaster ever for a nine-inning game. A boy, who was 10 years and one month old, broadcast a game.

In 2003, the Suns won the Veeckie for promotion of the year - the Gerald N. Minnich preplanned funeral giveaway.

The Suns will have a few 25th anniversary giveaway specials this coming season, but Landes remained mum about potential wackiness in the works.

"I can't tip my hat yet. I have some ideas," said Landes, the excitement showing in his eyes.

Moving up

As a youth, Landes aspired to be a professional football player.

He played tight end and defensive back for Northwestern High School near Wooster, Ohio, and was on the track, basketball and baseball teams.

"I was fast and I could play defense, but I couldn't hit the ball worth a lick," Landes said of his days playing center field.

So Landes pursued a sports career off the field.

He studied sports management at Bowling Green State University, during which time he received an internship with the Toledo Mud Hens, a minor league team at the AAA level.

He was hired full time by Toledo, working as the community relations events coordinator before becoming director of ticket sales for the AA-level Canton-Akron Indians in 1996.

He stayed with the team when it became the Aeros and moved to Akron 25 miles away.

"Things worked out for me," Landes said. "It's very, very difficult to get into sports and I've been fortunate."

While serving as director of ticket sales for the Aeros, he met Andy Rayburn, one of the Aeros' clients who had a big company outing at the ballpark every year.

When Rayburn bought the Daytona Cubs of the Class A Florida State League, he hired Landes to be the team's general manager.

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