March 20, 2017

Embracing, 'carnival' atmosphere coming to Hartford's ballpark

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Hartford's downtown minor-league ballpark will be as much a marketing-promotions venue as a baseball stadium. It's also seen as a potential economic-development catalyst.
PHOTO | Contributed
Some of the many sponsor logos at the stadium.
PHOTO | Contributed
Yard Goats Assistant General Manager Michael Abramson in the stadium’s media center, from which home games will be aired.

2017 Ballpark Debuts

The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, West Palm Beach, Fla.

The Depot, Cleburne, Texas

Dunkin' Donuts Park, Hartford

Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland, Fla. (renovations)

Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, Fla. (renovations)

SunTrust Park, Atlanta, Georgia

Willie Horton Field, Detroit (Old Tiger Stadium site)

Source: Ballpark Digest

Yard Goats fans who flock to downtown Hartford's Dunkin' Donuts Park opening day April 13 will eye the mound, in anticipation of pitchers' arsenals of fastballs, curveballs and sinkers.

But there are other hard- and softball pitches that, rather than thrown at batters, are aimed to hit season-ticketholders, sponsors and fans right between the eyes — and their wallets. As much as the ballpark will be a venue where a diverse populace shares its appreciation for America's pasttime, it will also be a place where companies pay sponsorship fees for the opportunity to promote their brands and products to thousands of consumers on game days.

It will be obvious from the time fans arrive at the stadium's main entrance, with its two-story tall "Dunkin' Donuts Park'' sign towering overhead. If they miss that, fans most likely will lay eyes on the dozens of outfield ad billboards and signs paid for by team sponsors.

Nearly 12 months behind its original opening-day goal last April, the 6,000-seat (8,000 with standing room), $71 million stadium in Hartford's Downtown North, or DoNo quadrant, will be one of eight new minor-league ballparks built or extensively renovated in the last five years, according to Ballpark Digest. The others include in Biloxi, Miss.; Birmingham, Ala.; Charlotte, N.C.; Pensacola, Fla.; and El Paso, Texas. America is home to 159 minor-league ballparks used by 160 teams.

Each market aspired, as does Hartford, to leverage their ballparks to spur economic development in the vicinity and surrounding region. Several have had some success, said Ballpark Digest Publisher Kevin Reichard.

Development in downtown Fort Wayne, Ind., has thrived in the decade since its downtown minor-league park opened, Reichard said. Charlotte opened its downtown ballpark in 2013, and Nashville, Tenn., built its stadium on former state parking lots.

Big-league stadiums have also been major economic triggers. San Diego has gotten about $1 billion in development since the Padres' big-league stadium, Petco Park, opened in 2004, Reichard said.

Few stadiums, however, have undergone the kind of construction delays and acrimony as has Hartford's venue, he said.

"It is pretty unusual,'' Reichard said. "But the fact that it's a ballpark is almost immaterial to this. Anytime you have a city-led development, you could get [issues] like this."

Despite the delay, Yard Goats officials say that hasn't dampened enthusiasm — or financial support — from its corporate sponsors like Aetna, The Hartford and Dunkin' Donuts who signed on early and remained with the team through the construction dustup. The ballclub has already sold all of its inventory of outfield signage for the stadium's inaugural season.

No sponsors defected amid the turmoil arising from the stadium cost overruns and subsequent acrimonious relationship between the city and the former stadium developer, Centerplan, said Yard Goats Assistant General Manager Mike Abramson.

"We'll probably end up having over 250 sponsors — big and small,'' said Abramson, who has spent the last four of his 12 years in baseball with Yard Goats owner Josh Solomon's organization. "The way the corporate community has enveloped us has been what we thought, and then some.''

When they were in New Britain, the former Rock Cats had only a handful of corporations as sponsors despite Hartford being only 13 miles away, and home to several Fortune 500 companies, said Abramson, describing such sponsorships as the "bread and butter of minor-league baseball.''

"The corporate-hospitality opportunities are far greater than they were'' in New Britain, he said. Opening Day is already sold out.

The Yard Goats sold sponsors, he said, not just on the opportunity to leverage their brands via the team, but provide them a vehicle onto which those sponsors could initiate or deepen their community ties.

For instance, Dunkin' Donuts will distribute 33 tickets each game for seats along the dugouts to members of the Hartford region who work with or for community-service organizations, team officials said.

The Yard Goats' roster of corporate sponsors benefit the team in another important way: They stretch the team's meager marketing-promotions budget. Bartering typically is how the Yard Goats and other minor-league ballclubs get many of their products and services.

CTfastrak, for instance, will soon begin promoting its suburban-route schedule to the downtown stadium. Another sponsor, NBC-CT Channel 30, has affixed a camera in the stadium that, on game days, will provide screen shots during the station's live weather and traffic reports.

Media blitz

The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. was one of the Yard Goats' "founding sponsors'' when the team announced its intent to relocate in 2015.

For The Hartford, which recently saw a statue replica of its "stag'' logo mounted in the stadium, aligning with the team was more about community support than hawking its property-casualty products, said Michael Dunn, assistant vice president for brand strategy and management.

"This is really more about our commitment to the city and the area we call home,'' Dunn said, declining to reveal the dollar-value of its sponsorship.

It was also a reason The Hartford didn't abandon the team during the stadium debacle, he said.

"We were committed at that point and we remain committed," Dunn said. "It's about enhancing the vitality of the city.''

Beginning April 3, the Yard Goats will launch an expansive media campaign, promoting its upcoming 140-game season via television, radio, print and online, Abramson said. The team is the Double-A affiliate of the major-league Colorado Rockies ballclub.

Despite the Yard Goats' aggressive outreach to sponsors, the team still bills itself as "family entertainment.'' Ticket prices, ranging from $6 to $16 for advance tickets to game-day prices from $8 to $18, are the same as when the team was the Rock Cats. Concession prices have yet to be set, but Abramson vows there "won't be any $20 beers'' like in many big-league ballparks.

Each of the team's 70 home games this season are pocked with promotions. Fireworks will be a staple most night games. Other fan-appreciation events on deck include foam-finger, baseball cap and mascot Chompers bobble-head giveaways, and "baseball bingo.'' During the July 14-16 home series, there will be a "Whalers Alumni Weekend,'' in which ex-players from the former Hartford NHL team will be in attendance. UConn Health signed on as "presenting sponsor'' for that event.

“Carnival” atmosphere

Stadium novelties, like the giant, centerfield Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup that will emit steam for each home run, each have a role in enhancing the park's fun atmosphere, team officials say. The coffee cup is an extension of Dunkin's stadium-branding, courtesy of the huge "Dunkin' Donuts Park'' sign at the main entryway.

"It's part carnival, part ballpark,'' Abramson said. "When you walk into the main gate and see the size of that sign, it tells you you're not walking into a ballpark, you're walking into a carnival midway.''

With names like "Dark Blues Diner," "The Grazin' Goat," and "Huck's Hot Corner," the stadium's food-beverage concessions will contribute to the loose, fun atmosphere Yard Goats games intend to evoke, Abramson said.

Centerfield also houses the "Travelers Fun Zone,'' where kids play on "bounce-houses'' and other playscapes while their guardians enjoy the game. Unlike the old play zone in New Britain, Hartford's has a view of — and can be seen from — the ballfield, Abramson said.

In addition, the Yard Goats have signed several regional and national acts to entertain fans during down times. No matter that it will be a new stadium in a new venue, team officials say fans still expect the entertainment "schtick'' that is routine in most minor-league ballparks.

"We have to satisfy their expectations,'' Abramson said. "Whether it sells tickets or not is less the point of it than making sure people have a full experience.''

Proof that minor-league teams' promotions connect with fans, he said, is that Major League Baseball teams have begun copying some of the smaller league's more popular fan attractions.

Reaching a diverse audience

The Yard Goats say they are working with four local/regional advertising-marketing agencies to promote the team to a wide base of the Hartford and New England region.

Maria Lino, principal of The Latino Way, a downtown Hartford advertising-marketing house, says her firm is helping the Yard Goats "build a bridge between the team with our local neighborhoods.''

Many in Hartford's Puerto Rican and Dominican communities grew up with baseball, and some still play in various recreation leagues, Lino said. It's into that audience, as well as the African-American market, the Yard Goats want to penetrate more deeply.

All Yard Goats games will be broadcast in English (WPOP AM 1410) and in Spanish (WPRX AM 1120), and will be available on the iHeartRadio app. All home games will also be videostreamed on Aug. 18 will be "Roberto Clemente Day'' at the stadium, celebrating the late Pittsburgh Pirate and humanitarian.

"It's important to have that soul of the neighborhood reflected in the [stadium's] daily activities," said Lino, an avowed soccer fan. "That feeling of pride has to be there.''

Abramson added that, "The promise of the ballpark is that it would be everybody's ballpark. It does a disservice to the community if we're only marketing in English.''

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