The crack of a baseball bat was again a part of the soundtrack of summer in Kalamazoo, and by most indicators, it looks to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
From league-leading attendance to strong sales of both merchandise and sponsorships, the amateur Kalamazoo Growlers have found success in the Southwest Michigan city during the team’s first season, which ended Aug. 10.
The Growlers averaged 2,243 fans per game this year, the third-best showing in the 18-team Northwoods League, which is headquartered in Rochester, Minn.
While a small market like Kalamazoo may not seem like the prime area to sustain an independent baseball team, the Northwoods League’s strategy is to seek out unconventional markets, said Brian Colopy, president and managing partner of the Growlers. In particular, the league saw an opportunity to fill a void left when the Kalamazoo Kings of the Frontier League folded in 2010 after a decade of play.
“Our league is based on going into markets where Minor League or independent league teams have been, and may not have been successful,” Colopy told MiBiz. “That’s what the league was founded on. We can go into places that haven’t succeeded in the past and find a way to make them succeed.”
The business model for the Kalamazoo team is simple: Get people out to see games, keep them entertained and provide them reasons to come back again, he said.
“It’s about finding unique, fun ways to keep people entertained, which is a challenge we take a lot of pride in,” Colopy said.
For a fledgling team in a small market, the Growlers certainly landed its share of publicity. The team’s “Salute to Selfie” night featured players wearing jerseys with a mosaic of fan selfies they submitted via social media. The promotion even landed the team on a segment of ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.
The team also landed in the spotlight for its entry into the seemingly endless arms race among ballparks to create the craziest concession foods. The Growlers’ concoction, the bear claw burger, featured a hamburger topped with pulled pork, coleslaw and macaroni, all between two bear claw donuts.
For the city of Kalamazoo, the Growlers have also brought renewed life and traffic back to Mayors’ Riverfront Park, where Homer Stryker Field is located. The baseball club signed a five-year lease to use the stadium, with an option to extend the deal. The $35,000 annual lease includes field access, office space and essentially everything else required to operate the team.
The lease also covers all of the city’s operational costs for the team to use the park, said Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation Director Sean Fletcher, who stressed that the city does not subsidize the team in any way.
After the Kings left Kalamazoo and before the Growlers moved in, the stadium was used very little – only for tournaments and special events, Fletcher said.
“I just love that [the field] is being used – it sat, hardly being used at all,” Fletcher said. “It’s nice to have a team that will play 35 or 36 games.”
Looking ahead, Colopy said the team could one day look to add on to the stadium to both increase capacity and enhance the baseball atmosphere.
A DIFFERENT BUSINESS MODEL
Much of the Growlers’ success hinges on the unique business model of the Northwoods League, which bills itself as the first for-profit summer collegiate league. Other collegiate leagues, like the famed Cape Cod League, operate as nonprofits, generally don’t charge admission and are just out to cover expenses.
The for-profit model has allowed the Northwoods League to amp up promotional and marketing efforts, maintain larger stadiums and create an experience much more akin to the Minor League baseball atmosphere.
All collegiate players are unpaid, which complies with NCAA sanctions and helps keep operational costs in check. Detractors suggest that the for-profit model exploits collegiate athletes for the financial gain of team owners and the league, but executives counter that the league manages to attract some of the nation’s top talent.
“I played in the Frontier League, so this might be a knock on myself a little bit, but (the Northwoods League) guys have a better chance of making it to the Major Leagues, statistically,” Colopy said. “Our guys are on their way up, and die-hard baseball fans want to see that. It’s the best summer collegiate baseball, without a doubt.”
The rough operational budget for a Northwoods League team is around $500,000, but expenses can be cut even further when teams create relationships with vendors for food and hotel accommodations, Colopy said.
The Kalamazoo Growlers, as well as the neighboring Battle Creek Bombers, are owned by Dick and Kathy Radatz, Michigan natives who also own the Northwoods League as a whole. The rest of the teams are owned by individuals in their respective communities, including Green Bay, Madison, Duluth and Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The Radatzes invested less than $50,000 to launch the Growlers, said Colopy, who declined to divulge the team’s financials, but noted that organization was going to “far exceed just breaking even.”
“We have other (Northwoods League) teams that have done this for a long time that we baseline off of and take their best practices,” he said.
LOCAL ENTERTAINMENT BOOST
Greg Ayers, president and CEO of Discover Kalamazoo, said his organization became a corporate sponsor for the Growlers this season, as well as helped with the team’s promotion, as it does with other area attractions. Like Colopy and Fletcher, Ayers said he was pleased to see baseball back in the community.
“You would have people over the last few years that would say, ‘Boy, I miss having baseball around,’ and you just hoped that they would be some of your first supporters,” Ayers said. “I think there was some pent-up demand, but the credit (for the season’s success) goes to the Growlers. They created ticket packages and managed group outings effectively.”
Ticket prices for a Growlers game ranged from $5 to $25 for advanced sales.
“They were also highly visible at a lot of other community events,” Ayers added.
That kind of community involvement buoyed the Growlers’ prospects on the sponsorship front, Colopy said.
“We’ve done really well this year (with sponsorships),” Colopy said, acknowledging that he was unable to give a final number on sponsorship revenue. “There was a lot of hesitancy with people jumping in, but a lot of people stepped to the plate – founding partners and people like that. Since then, we’ve gotten a lot of inquiries and calls. We had to prove ourselves, and I think we have, to an extent.”