Last week, I saw a story about how the Southern League’s new team, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, had capped season ticket sales after early demand for them soared through the roof. I emailed Mike about it, wondering if he might have some insight into the situation there. He didn’t have anything firm, just some ideas, but ultimately suggested I call up the team and talk to them about it. So I did.
Blue Wahoos Executive VP Jonathan Griffith and I spoke last Thursday about Pensacola’s support of the team, the reasons for capping ticket sales, and the importance of thinking long-term. That interview was used to write a story that appeared earlier today on MiLB.com; I thought the the full Q&A would be a nice supplement to that.
The reason you guys caught my eye was the story about the season tickets being capped off. And honestly, the reason it caught my attention was that one of the other writers for my website lives down in the Tampa/St. Pete area, and so we’re used to seeing Florida teams struggling with their attendance, drawing a couple hundred a game, a few hundred a game. So I wanted to get your opinion from being on the ground in Pensacola, what makes your situation different from those teams that are down there? Why is there such support for the team?
You know, I think the biggest thing is with this area here, we’re a baseball town. This town really thrives on baseball. If you look at the baseball history here in town it’s pretty unique as far as some of the top talent. Like Buck Showalter is from here, the Orioles manager. For instance, there’s some Hall of Famers from here. It’s just baseball’s a very, very big thing here. You go to North Carolina, it’s college basketball. Down here it’s baseball. Even high school baseball is a really big deal here in this town.
And the other thing is, it’s a unique setting of a ballpark. The only other ballpark that can really compare to it is San Francisco, being right on the bay. You can literally see the Gulf of Mexico from our concourse. Those type of views are pretty impressive, and I think the community has been really wanting something like this. It’s a beach town, we have a lot of tourism that comes into town, but we haven’t even touched into our tourism market yet. This has all been local support that has been buying these season tickets.
Was that sort of what the idea was behind capping them off, to still allow those people that are coming in during the summer to have the opportunity to get to the games?
Not only tourism, but for folks that just can’t afford season tickets. Our season tickets are $560 or $390 depending on which option you took, and we wanted to make sure that we had affordable tickets for everyone. So we have 1,000 GA tickets, which are $5 apiece, and then we have an $8 option and then we have a $10 option. The entire project was for economic development in downtown Pensacola, and in order to do that we felt that it needed to be affordable, and a place for people to come with their families and have a great time. That affordable family fun that Minor League Baseball is all about but we’re bringing it in downtown Pensacola on the water.
What’s your capacity for this new ballpark?
It’s about 5,000.
So it’s a nice size place.
It is. It’s not huge. The furthest seat back in our ballpark is fourteen rows back, which is pretty impressive, especially if you go to any big league ballpark, but every seat is kind of on top of the game. Even that $5 seat out on that berm, the ballplayer might be fifty feet away from you and you’re standing over him. There’s great views from everywhere in the ballpark.
This may be a strange question, but what’s the highest number of tickets you could theoretically sell this season? Like what’s the highest number that your attendance could be, approximately?
Seventy times 5,000, which is…350,000.
Okay, so you’re well on your way to that.
We are. Right now, to date, we have sold about 230,000 tickets.
That’s amazing. Is that something that you guys were expecting coming in or was it sort of a pleasant surprise for you?
Yeah, no chance. [laughs] It’s a pleasant surprise. I mean, we knew we were gonna do well, just with the ballpark and everything else, but at the end of the day I don’t think anybody can expect to sell that many, three-thousand, season tickets in a minor league ballpark. Sixty percent of those are three-year deals. We gave our fans the option to do one-, two-, or three-year deals, and the incentive for that more than anything was that we locked in the price.
That’s what I was gonna ask, was if it locked in a price for those three years.
It does. We sell it as it guaranteed us ticket sales and for them it guaranteed them a good price and that they don’t need to bother with it, they don’t feel like we’re gonna try to take advantage of them every year or anything else. Not that we would do that, but you just never know with the economy. Sometimes you need to go up fifty cents or a dollar from time to time, and it helps them know that, “Hey, you know what, I’m gonna get this value for the next three years,” and that’s what they’re doing.
Your mini-plans are on sale now. And in a week and a half or so your single games go on sale?
March 19, they’ll go on sale.
So do you kind of consider the season ticket numbers to be an indicator of things to maybe come in that area? Is that where you’re hoping things go?
It is. Just in our first day of offering mini-plans, we sold 400 sets of mini-plans, so it’s been positive. And again, you can get a mini-plan for as low as $40, and the idea of the mini-plan is that it guarantees you a seat in the ballpark. And you get to pick that seat, obviously, for those five games that you pick. And then we went up to twelve games, which is $120 as the max count for those games. And that’s every Saturday night, which is a fireworks night. We did those nights because we wanted to make sure our weekends are sold out, and hopefully by the time that March 19 date comes around we’ll be sold out for at least the weekends. Our goal, every team’s goal, is to be sold out every night, but realistically if we get 4-5 sellouts a week, that’s pretty good. We’re pretty happy with that.
You mentioned that there’s a real big baseball history in Pensacola, but do you know historically how other teams have drawn there?
I think that’s the biggest difference – they haven’t had affiliated ball here since the 1960s, I believe it was. The ball club that they had here before, and I was actually a part of that when I first got here, was the independent team, the Pelicans. They averaged roughly 1,000 fans a game. They had about 75 season ticket holders that were very loyal and diehard baseball fans. And I think what we bring to town is much more of the entertainment and the family value than the true baseball. It’s a different style of baseball, it’s a different level of baseball. These guys now are guys that have two years and you’ll see them in a Reds uniform on television, and that’s a really big deal to get to see that kind of talent this early here in Pensacola. It’s something that they haven’t seen since the ‘60s.
I gotta laugh when I hear you talking about the independent team with the 75 season ticket holders, because I worked for an independent team up here in New Hampshire, and same thing – we had a very small season ticket base, but they were intensely loyal.
Oh yeah, and that’s the thing – the 75 that we had for the Pelicans are the most loyal fans. They were very upset that we were doing what we were doing as far as changing over, but at the end of the day everybody knows it’s for the best. And for the city – this is a really big deal for our city. You figure, we’re one of 90 cities that have a Double-A or higher team. That’s a big deal. That’s a big thing to say for a small town. The population of the city of Pensacola is only 40,000.
That’s small. Wow.
It is…but we have a military base of 55,000. [laughs]
That’s the other thing I was gonna say, is that my friend in St. Pete is involved in the military, so he mentioned the base as we were spitballing, tossing ideas around, wondering what could be behind this huge burst of activity there. That was one thing he had mentioned, that there was a big base in town.
We basically broke out market into three [areas]: the locals of Pensacola, and that’s our season ticket base, and then we have the tourism, and the third one is the military. We have NAS [Naval Air Station] which has about 50-55,000 men and women out there on that base, we have Whiting Field, we have Eglin Air Force Base. I would say within thirty miles we probably have close to 100-150,000 men and women serving in this area here, and that’s gonna be a huge target for us. We actually are working with the USO and a couple other military groups as well in trying to get them out here. We’re working with the local bus company – well, it’s really the county – to get the buses to bring men and women out to the ballpark, make that a stop for them so if they don’t have a car they’re able to jump on the bus and go over to the ballgame as well.
I don’t wanna jump the gun here, but I think you guys are gonna need a bigger ballpark.
[laughs] Well, if we do this for ten years, I would agree.
Yeah, I guess long-term success is always the key, right?
It is. In the first year of anything you do, the newness is great. But we are kind of creating a culture and a whole format here that we’re not looking at just this year. We’re looking at the next ten years. And I mean, it started out with our sponsorships. The sponsorships that we have are 3-5 years. Our season ticketholders, we really pushed that three-year activity. And then of course every year we’re going to keep going and trying to get people to commit for multiple years, because this is something that if it happens for one year, we have a great year and then never again, nobody wins. We’re really looking for that long-time partnership with all of our sponsors and our season ticketholders and the community. If we don’t have the community support then we’re not doing what we need to do.
Is that multi-year deal on sponsorships and season tickets, is that sort of the standard in the industry or is that something that you guys are innovating?
You know, it matters where you’re going and where you come from. It’s not everywhere. I came from the Nationals organization before I got down here and we did one-year deals for the most part. Every now and then I had a two- or three-year deal. Here, we kinda wanted to set the market and set up the expectation of a partnership for long-term partnerships and not just a fly-by-night. Kind of like what I was talking about with our season ticketholders. If it’s a one-year thing and we’re not doing our job, then nobody really wins from that. But they’re gonna get exposure. In the first year right now, without selling another ticket, they’re gonna get exposed to 220,000 people, which in a town of this size, that’s a big number. And if we can commit to this long-term partnership and have that multiplied times three or four years, we’re talking close to a million people.
Thanks to Jonathan Griffith for taking the time to speak with me.