Minor league baseball's 24th consecutive season in Augusta hits the halfway point today when the South Atlantic League holds its annual all-star game in Salisbury, Md. The GreenJackets will be represented by infielders Carlos Willoughby and Adam Duvall; pitchers Shawn Sanford, Taylor Rogers and Stephen Harrold; and pitching coach Steve Kline.
GreenJackets general manager Nick Brown took time to answer a few questions about the state of the team and the stadium situation.
Q: You recently celebrated your millionth fan since Ripken Baseball Group took over. How have you managed to keep fans coming back to the ballpark?
A: "When we started the process six years ago, we set the foundation for the franchise with some basic concepts. We had to provide a product that was affordable, entertaining and adapting to our customers' needs. It is clear that we are affordable, and we are always trying creative things to keep our product appealing to our fan base. ... For what we can control, as in a clean and a safe environment, we have been able to accomplish that; however, we have been restricted somewhat by the facility in accommodating our customers' needs."
Q: There are often uncontrollable factors a minor league team has to face like weather, the economy and the schedule. What type of impact have those things had on the team this year?
A: "With the schedule and the economy you have some time to prepare for those issues, but Mother Nature is the toughest factor for us to deal with as operators.
"As for the economy, our product is so affordable that we are somewhat insulated from the temperament in the economy. The basic need for people to be entertained is still there whether the economy is up or down, and with the affordability of our product we have been able to withstand some tough times. On the other hand, the weather can make or break a baseball club's year from an operation standpoint. This past weekend was the perfect example as we had rain in the area on Friday, were rained out on Saturday and Sunday we were over 100 degrees. It was a shame because we were expecting record crowds as we had more tickets sold for that weekend than any weekend in the past six years."
Q: Some changes were made to the promotional schedule this year, including adding more fireworks nights and taking away a few well-known acts, like Myron Noodleman and the ZOOperstars. What has been the reaction from fans so far?
A: "Earlier I spoke about adapting to our customers' needs, and one way to take care of our customers is through our promotional schedule. For years, we have heard from our fan base that we have the 'best fireworks in the area,' so we decided to give them more of what they wanted. From a planning standpoint, we decided to remove the ZOOperstars and Myron Noodleman from the promotional schedule and add new acts to freshen up our schedule. We haven't heard much feedback about those acts being removed from the promotional schedule."
Q: Increased walk-up ticket sales were a big part of the record-breaking attendance numbers in 2008, and group sales did the trick when the record was broken again last year. How does attendance look this year, and what has driven the numbers?
A: "Our attendance at the end of the first half was a little under 100,000, which is what we had anticipated before the season started. We are still on pace to go over 200,000 for the season because of the way the schedule breaks out. ... To the second part of your question, our attendance will always be driven by our advance ticket sales, but to achieve the mark of 200,000 we will need a consistent walk-up crowd."
Q: What's your response when you hear people say Augusta doesn't need a new ballpark and Lake Olmstead Stadium is good enough?
A: "Those that generally say that have typically not seen the newer facilities that have been built and the amenities and experience enhancement it brings. Lake Olmstead does not have the ability to offer the fans that modern experience: There are no climate-controlled areas; there is very limited group areas with no expansion room; there are no dedicated corporate/private hosting spaces. We have tight concourses with obsolete infrastructure for menu expansion in concessions, technology enhancements, fan comforts in seating, player development, larger entertainment zones as well as ingress and egress issues on larger nights. Those are just some of the challenges and not nearly all.
"We recognize there will always be those that are sentimental of their experiences at Lake Olmstead and have minimum expectations of what a modern fan experience should be like. We welcome those that see Lake Olmstead as good enough to travel to places like Greenville, S.C.; Durham, N.C.; Greensboro; and Winston-Salem (to name just a few cities nearby) and take in a ballgame to get an idea of how it differs and then imagine something like they have but better."
Q:Minor league hockey returned to Augusta last year and will begin its second season in October. Has the Augusta RiverHawks' presence in the market helped, hurt or not had an impact on the GreenJackets?
A: "We are all in the same boat in the respect that we share a mission. That mission is to get people to see 'live' sporting events and take in the communal experience you can't get sitting on your couch watching on your big screen. The more fun families have sharing that time together the better off we are as an organization. But to answer your question we focus on what we control, not what we can't and it's our job to make coming to a GreenJackets game as compelling to our fans as we can and we have not seen a negative impact to what we do in relation to the return of the hockey."