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Pioneer league: Fan-friendly fun — Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz hope for big things on field, in stands

Published: Sunday, June 19 2011 8:57 p.m. MDT

Owlz' manager Tom Kotchman hits grounders to his team during practice at Utah Valley University. Orem and Ogden open the season tonight. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Owlz' manager Tom Kotchman hits grounders to his team during practice at Utah Valley University. Orem and Ogden open the season tonight. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Over the last decade, the Orem Owlz and Ogden Raptors have built up an intense minor league baseball rivalry.

And fans from the two in-state Pioneer League franchises have developed some pretty fierce feelings for that "other" O-town team, whether it's the one up north or that one down south.

But while Orem and Ogden fans may not see eye-to-eye when it comes time to "root, root, root for the home team," the two ballclubs' front-office gurus certainly agree on one thing: They want the people in their respective communities to be singing "Take me out to the ball game" all summer long.

Jason Badell brings his previous marketing experience with the Salt Lake Bees, Utah Starzz, BYU, the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Utah Sports Commission into his first year as general manager of the Owlz, who open their 2011 Pioneer League season tonight at home against Casper.

He has high hopes that, despite a still somewhat shaky economy, the Orem ballclub can increase its attendance considerably through making Brent Brown Ballpark a fun, family-oriented place to be for Utah County residents. "We're looking to have a great summer," Badell said. "This area is definitely family-based, and our ballpark is conducive to families coming out and having a good time.

"We really are looking to connect not only with families, because that obviously brings numbers, but also looking to connect with corporate sponsors and companies that do their summer parties and outings, and then with the individual fan that wants to come out to one or two games a summer."

The Owlz averaged around 2,200 fans per game at home last season, when they qualified for the Pioneer League's Southern Division playoffs but lost to Ogden in a tense first-round series.

Badell is aiming for an average of 3,000 or more fans per game this season, and he has implemented some promotional ideas toward reaching that goal.

"This summer I will be surprised if we don't hit 3,000 fans a game or more — easily," he said. "Last year, we didn't do a good enough job as far as marketing the team and letting people know about the games. You're competing with softball, baseball, travel teams, vacations and people who just want to stay home and enjoy each other's company.

"We understand that, but we provide a great environment here that's fun for everybody. You don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy our games."

Two primary programs are in place to help push the Owlz attendance upward for the country's only minor league baseball team that doesn't sell beer in its ballpark.

First, the Owlz have partnered with the Seven Peaks and Trifalga parks for the "Pass of All Passes," by which fans can purchase a Seven Peaks pass and receive free general admission to an Owlz game. Or, they can take that G.A. ticket and, for $3, upgrade it to a reserve seat, or $6 for a premium seat.

"We think that's going to be a huge generator of attendance in these economic times and especially in this community," Badell said. "We definitely think that'll increase our numbers."

Secondly, the Owlz are offering free memberships to their Kids Club this year.

"We're doing over 20 giveaways this year that are geared toward kids with our 'Owlz R 4 Kidz' program," Badell said, noting that the free Kids Club membership includes free tickets to games, T-shirts, kids meals and Disney-themed giveaways such as "Toy Story" pens and writing pads and "High School Musical" keychains.

"We've got a lot of fun things geared toward kids this year. We're going to have fun games on the field; we're going to have some fun prizes from our sponsors; we're going to have some fun music playing, and then we get to watch a game. And oh, by the way, we're going to do that all again in three outs. It's all about the experience and people coming to have a good time.

"I think the future's very bright here," he said. "There's been some tough years with the economy, and we've all had our struggles, all the businesses out there. But we're definitely on the upswing. And the great thing about the sports industry is that people will still spend money on things that they enjoy, that bring them happiness and fun and entertainment in their lives."

Meanwhile, up north in Ogden, Raptors team president Dave Baggott has a slightly difference philosophy — one of "if you give 'em free tickets, they will come."

And then, hopefully, once fans are in the ballpark, they'll spend a few bucks on concessions or souvenirs, have a good time and keep coming back again and again.

To that end, for the third year in a row, Baggott and the Raptors are giving away 1 million free general admission tickets which are available from their Northern Utah corporate sponsors — Little Caesar's, Red Robin and Sizzler restaurants and Ruby River Steakhouse.

And, get this — no purchase is necessary.

"We're sentimental to the state of the economy," said Baggott, adding that if 20,000 fans all decided to show up on the same night at 7,000 seat Lindquist Field, "it'd be a good problem to have.

"All the fans have to do is go to the restaurant and get 'em. They can get a hundred at a time if they want. Our schedule's printed on the back of each ticket, so they can come to a game whenever they want."

Those free G.A. tickets can be upgraded to a box seat for $6, and when fans do that, they'll get a $2.50 food voucher to spend in the ballpark that night.

"Our goal is to get a reasonable number of people to upgrade into those reserve seats," said Baggott. "I guess the point being that if anybody walks up to the window on game day and pays $12 for a box seat, they're not very bright.

"The whole point is what we've learned over the years here in Ogden, and I think it could be a microcosm of the times we live in, it's about value added. People need to know they're getting something in return for that hard-earned dollar that they're spending. And we think we're providing that for them.

"All fans have to do is go get those free tickets and come to the ballpark," he said. "Our goal is to get you to come one time; if you don't come again, then that's my fault. ... We hope we can make them a regular customer."

The Raptors have certainly done a great job of turning many of those fans into regular customers, having led the Pioneer League in home attendance every year since moving into Lindquist Field in 1997.

And this year, the Raptors — who open the season tonight and Tuesday at Idaho Falls before playing their home-opener on Wednesday — will draw their two-millionth fan sometime in mid- to late-August.

"For a short-season club to do that in less than 20 years is considered a feat," Baggott said. "So we're proud of that and we'll figure out something to do for that two-millionth fan and we will identify exactly who that fan is."

The Raptors have drawn 1,897,023 fans over their first 17 seasons and need 126,977 fans to hit 2 million.

"It took us 12 years to do our first million, and it's only going to take us six years to do the second million," said Baggott, whose team has averaged from 3,500-3,900 fans per game in recent seasons.

With a marketing genious like Baggott — the man who brought Ogden fans such promotions as Jimmy Buffett Night, Grateful Dead Night, Kiss Night and IOC Olympic Bribery Night, among others — at the helm, the Raptors have figured out how to keep fans coming to the ballpark.

"They want to watch the game, they want a good price, and they want to have a good time," he said. "So we've taken all of that into account and we run our own food and beverage service in-house. So the bottom line for us is, if you get 'em in the ballpark, we hope that they buy something to eat or drink and that's revenue for the ballclub. It's not rocket science — get 'em in here as easily as you can and then sell 'em something.

"People have enough worries today, especially with the economy with the way it is. People are worried about mortage payments and car payments and paying the light bill and feeding their kids; they shouldn't have to worry about coming to the ballpark. In fact, we should be the alternative. It's a place to go to forget about your troubles for three hours."

Baggott, the Raptors' team founder and co-owner, sees the keys to a successful franchise as a cooperative effort between ownership, the team, fans and the business community.

"This is the longest single-running minor league baseball group in Ogden's history, and we're very proud of that," he said. "We've got good share-holders, good fans, a great community and the support of the business community with corporate sponsorships.

"And if they all don't get involved — I don't care if it's Ogden, Salt Lake, Orem, Columbus, Ohio, wherever — if they all don't get involved, it won't work. The franchise has to be as much of an asset to the community as the community needs to be an asset for the ballclub. It all has to blend together and work or it will fail.

"I've always said from day one, there's no such thing as bad baseball towns, just bad baseball operators," Baggott said. "Our number one mission statement is to be part of the community."

And in Ogden City and Weber County, judging from the Raptors' ever-rising fan attendance and support, you'd be safe to say "mission accomplished."

Email: rhollis@desnews.com

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