Playing to Win: Minor league sports carving out a healthy niche in Utah

Summer nights at Brett Brown Ballpark can sometimes feel like a night at the movies.

It isn’t uncommon to show up for an Orem Owlz baseball game and see a multitude of fans decked out in costume. On Star Wars night, for example, spotting people dressed up as Luke Skywalker or Han Solo is as easy as catching a glimpse of the newest batch of rookies on the Owlz’ roster.

“That’s the beauty of minor league baseball,” says Orem Owlz General Manager Rick Berry. “It’s not just baseball only. There’s interaction with promotional nights—whether it’s a Star Wars night or a Ghostbusters night or a fireworks night. There’s something for everybody. You don’t have to be an absolute baseball purist to enjoy an Owlz’ minor league baseball game.”

Minor league sports are thriving in Utah because fans can build an intimate connection with the teams. Players and coaches are often more accessible to fans than their counterparts at the major league level. Clever promotions and consistent community interaction also help build up a devoted local fan base that sticks with the team from one season to the next.

Building a community brand
Life is good for the Utah Grizzlies in so many ways.

The Grizzlies, which are an ECHL affiliate of the NHL hockey club Anaheim Ducks, has seen attendance increase in six of the last seven seasons. During the 2015-16 season, Utah drew nearly 5,000 fans per game to the Maverik Center in West Valley City—the highest average per game attendance for the club since the 2003-04 season.

Winning and contending for a playoff spot this past season contributed to increased turnout to Grizzlies’ games. But the win/loss record wasn’t the only factor drawing in fans. The club credits community outreach efforts with spurring interest in the club.

The Grizzlies hold Pink in the Rink nights every season, where the club auctions player jerseys and donates the funds to charities devoted to cancer research and battling cancer. Utah also stages annual Guns and Hoses nights. Local police and firefighters participate in this promotion by holding a special auction and also selling tickets to a pair of charity hockey games as a fundraiser for select charities. Both charity games are staged before that evening’s Grizzlies’ hockey game and the tickets purchased are good for all three events.

“We’re more than a hockey team,” says Adrian Denny, the play-by play voice for Grizzlies’ game broadcasts and the team’s vice president of communications and broadcasting. “We’re a community organization and that’s how we’ve been able to grow—by trying to get in touch with every single cause, every single age group, every single group we can work with, and bring them out to a hockey game.”

Orem has implemented some of its own creative measures to help local fans feel like the Owlz are a part of the community. The team allows little league baseball teams throughout the state to sign up and be honored at one of Orem’s 38 home games during the season. Signups are open to the first 38 teams. Each of those teams is then selected to attend a home game. When starting lineups are announced, each little league starter also gets their name announced with the Owlz’ starter at the same position and they get to run out on the field with that player.

Some Utah County residents also serve as host families for Owlz coaches and players during the season. They get to interact with them throughout the season and many remain diehard fans of the team after the experience is over.

“The community embraces the players and the players embrace the community,” Berry says. “It’s great for everybody. It’s an infusion of revenue for Orem, Provo and this area because kids are coming in here and they’re spending money. Their families are coming in to watch them. You got teams traveling here. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Creating financial success
Drawing new fans to come watch games, or getting corporate sponsorship dollars, can be a challenge for minor league teams who have their seasons overlap with major league teams in the same market. With the statewide popularity of Utah Jazz basketball, various University of Utah and BYU sports teams and Real Salt Lake soccer, other teams can often find themselves falling off the radar entirely.

Evidence of this trend can be seen from the failures of past minor league teams in the market.
The Utah Blaze operated as an Arena Football League franchise in Salt Lake City from 2006 to 2013, playing home games in EnergySolutions Arena. Blaze games were well attended during the first few seasons. Frequent ownership changes and financial turbulence for the franchise off the field doomed the Blaze eventually. When the team’s new owners failed to submit required paperwork in time for the 2014 season, the AFL shut the team down.

Another notable failure occurred with the Utah Flash, a D-League franchise that operated in Orem from 2007 to 2011. It played games at the UCCU Center at Utah Valley University. The Flash enjoyed high attendance while playing at UVU. They drew 4,237 fans per game during the 2010-11 season and ranked second among D-League teams in attendance. But the Flash could not find enough sponsorship deals to offset costs, and the team suspended operations for a year before relocating to Delaware in 2013.

Minor league teams that do survive, do it by emphasizing what they can offer to fans and sponsors alike.
Many teams have their own broadcasting deals with local TV and radio stations. Hockey fans can listen to Grizzlies’ radio broadcasts on 1320 KFAN. Baseball fans can check out Salt Lake Bees games on 1280 the Zone or listen to Orem Owlz games on ESPN 960. Having regular broadcasts can make it an easier sell for sponsors hoping to gain a little name recognition for their brand.

The Grizzlies also have a built-in advantage of the team’s owners also owning the management company that operates the Maverik Center. It helps reduce overhead costs that would normally stem from leasing an arena and allows the team to choose favorable dates for all of its home games.

“We have the best setup in professional hockey, no question,” Denny says. “The city has been unbelievably supportive of us. We manage the arena, which means we get to select the dates we want hockey games in advance before anything else (is booked). We get every prime date we want.”

Stable ownership can make a major difference for a minor league team’s staying power in Utah. The Bees put down roots in Salt Lake City as the Salt Lake Buzz 23 years ago and gained a lasting foothold in the market after Larry H. Miller purchased ownership of the team in 2005.

More than 11 million fans have turned out to watch baseball games at Smith’s Ballpark during the 23 years the team has been in Salt Lake City. Total attendance per season reaches nearly 500,000 spread over 72 home games.

Being owned by the same parent company as the Jazz takes some pressure away from the Bees when it comes to meeting the financial bottom line. Many of the same Jazz corporate partners also participate in sponsorships and promotions for the Bees.

“You don’t have to do anything that’s under duress in terms of sales and the business part of things,” says Bees General Manager Marc Amicone. “You have the ability to say, ‘Here’s our plan and here’s the best practices in how we’re going to go about selling our season tickets and our group tickets in the things we’re doing.’ It just allows you to really do things the right way.”

Time will tell if the Jazz can replicate this success with its newest franchise, the SLC Stars, a minor league affiliate basketball team the company purchased last year and plans to move to Utah. The team will play at the Salt Lake Community College Bruin Arena, giving fans the opportunity for a fun night of basketball at a minor-league price point.

Family-friendly fun
For fans, inexpensive fun is a major selling point. Minor league teams typically offer lower-priced tickets than their major league counterparts, which makes going to a game an affordable family activity.

Ticket prices for an Owlz game, for example, start at $5. Individual tickets to a Bees game are as low as $10 and individual tickets to a Grizzlies game start at $13. Fans can often purchase tickets at even lower prices through purchasing ticket plans or through attending games that are included in special promotions.

“You can bring your family to a baseball game and have not only baseball, but have all the interaction and all the other things that go along with it, for cheaper than going to a movie,” Berry says.

Business is booming for local minor league teams and it shows no signs of slowing down soon. Economic growth and population growth along the Wasatch Front continues at a healthy rate, opening doors for drawing in new fans and increased sponsorship dollars.

The ultimate key to success, however, comes from teams planting and nourishing roots within their local communities. As long as they can continue to cultivate community support for their product, everything else falls into place.

“We wouldn’t have been here for 21 years if we just came here, signed people to play hockey games and then go home for the summer,” Denny says. “Any player that signs a contract to play for the Grizzlies knows first that community is a priority of ours. We never turn down a mascot appearance. Our players are out in the community several times per week. It’s just part of our model and our mission statement for what we’re going to do. Anybody that comes to Utah and is involved in the organization knows that community involvement is who we are.”