Most of the people who run minor league baseball teams regard the late Bill Veeck as something of a promotional muse.
Veeck, who owned several professional baseball teams during his colorful career, was well known for his outlandish attempts to bring fans to the ballpark.
His most famous stunts include hiring 3-foot-7-inch-tall Eddie Gaedel to take one at-bat in a game for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 and holding Disco Demolition Night when a crate full of disco records was blown up on the field at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in ’79.
New Orleans Zephyrs general manager Mike Schline says minor league teams have to constantly cook up creative strategies to keep the turnstiles moving.
“We pride ourselves on the experience above and beyond baseball,” Schline says. “We don’t have (Hornets point guard) Chris Paul, (Saints running back) Reggie Bush and (Saints quarterback) Drew Brees to play for us. The nature of our business is our best players go to the Florida Marlins, so our roster is changing. We can’t necessarily market the team, as far as the players on the field, so we market that as a game in the background, but the promotions are at the forefront.”
Some of the Zephyrs’ promotions seem straight out of the Veeck playbook.
“We had probably the best one in minor league baseball last year,” Schline says. “We had MiniKiss. It is a cover band of Kiss, and they’re all little people. We almost sold the place out. It was awesome.”
This year the Zephyrs are upping the ante. A mini-Britney Spears impersonator will perform a concert at Zephyr Field.
“Of course you’ll have certain people that say ‘This is ridiculous’ or ‘I can’t believe you’re doing that,’ but then you also have 6,000 or 7,000 people filing into the ballpark that night that maybe have never been to one of your games before,” Schline says. “They hear about this outrageous promotion and the word of mouth spreads. That’s what you want.”
Schline promises that promotions, the lifeblood of any minor league franchise, will be numerous and diverse this season.
Some of the highlights are 17 post-game fireworks shows – the most they’ve ever had – at least eight concerts, music-themed nights to suit every preference from reggae to Johnny Cash, as well as weekly fixtures such as Weenie Wednesday ($1 hot dogs), Thirsty Thursday ($1 soft drinks, $2 beers) and Kids Day (when kids run the bases after the game).
The Zephyrs are also introducing a Sunday promotion in which the first 500 kids, ages 12 and under, get a free chocolate milk, hot dog and popcorn before the game.
There are three different ticket prices at Zephyr Field: $6 for levee seating behind the outfield fence, $8 for the upper level seats and $10 for the lower level.
“There are 30 Triple A teams in the country and we did a survey last year,” Schline says. “When you talk about buying a lower reserved ticket, a hot dog and a Coke, we’re more affordable than 28 of the 30 teams. And that’s very important to us.”
The Zephyrs also cater to large groups – with 16 suites and several hospitality areas that include a pavilion down the right field line, a home run porch in left field and perhaps the most popular mid-summer perch in the entire park: the swimming pool beyond the right field fence.
As a centerpiece of their marketing efforts, the Zephyrs unveiled a new logo, which incorporates a baseball bat into a fleur-de-lis, and blue and silver as the new team colors.
Schline says it’s only the second time the Zephyrs have changed the logo since the team moved from Denver in 1993, and he hopes the newest iteration, which finally reflects the team’s New Orleans heritage, will have staying power.
On the field, the Zephyrs have finished below .500 in each of the past two seasons. The team is in its second year of a two-year player development agreement with the Florida Marlins.
“First of all, you look at quality of players and what kind of players you get,” Schline says. “The Marlins, even though we didn’t win a lot of games last season, they send us a lot of young prospects, guys that are on their way up.”
One example of that talent is outfielder Chris Coghlan, who started last season in New Orleans and was called up to the Marlins in May. He went on to become the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year.
Manager Edwin Rodriguez returns for his second season with the Zephyrs. The native of Puerto Rico came to New Orleans after managing for two years at the Class A level.
But no discussion of the Zephyrs’ roster is complete without mention of the franchise player – a loveable, orange-fanged mascot that has engendered more goodwill than any other nutria in the state’s history.
“Boudreaux is the face of the team,” Schline says. “When it comes to competing with the Hornets and Saints, they overshadow us in many, many ways. That’s understandable. But the mascot is the one area where I don’t think they do overshadow us.”
The Marlins are the Zephyrs’ fifth different major league parent club in the 18-year history of the franchise. And Schline says he’s pleased with the current arrangement.
“We hope that the proximity between Miami and New Orleans will keep the relationship going,” Schline says. “I know that we’re interested in extending (the affiliation). As of now we hope we can sign a new two-year extension with the Marlins toward the end of the season.”
The Zephyrs’ future in New Orleans is easier to predict. Last year the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District approved a new seven-year lease agreement for the Zephyrs, which guarantees the team will play at Zephyr Field through the 2016 season.
Zephyr Field seats 10,000 with space for nearly another 1,000 fans on the levee in center field. Schline’s goal, as it is every season, is to fill as many of those seats as possible, but that can be challenging in a city like New Orleans, where there are so many attractions competing for the consumer’s entertainment dollar.
“We would love to draw (519,000) fans like we did in 1998 but realistically we need to draw 425,000 fans, not the 385,000 that we’ve been drawing,” Schline says. “I’m comfortable with the fact that we’re going to be here. But we need our sponsorship dollars, we need businesses to step up and support the team. Right now we’re doing about $800,000 in corporate sponsorships and we need to be up to $1.1 or $1.2 million.”
The Zephyrs may not boast a lineup stocked with household names. In fact, keeping up with player movement on a minor league roster can be, at times, tantamount to keeping score in a 15-inning game. But Schline says the team offers a game-day experience that’s consistent, regardless of who’s playing for the Zephyrs or whom they’re playing against.
“You bring a mom and dad and two kids and come to a Zephyrs game and eat food and drink and you’re going to get out of there for 35 or 40 bucks where other places you won’t get as far,” Schline says. “That’s where our niche is.
The affordability, the safety and being family-oriented.”