Minor league baseball team Washington Wild Things tries to revitalize product
"The Pirates have a 'Z,' but we have a 'W,' " says usher Pat Swihart, who tries to rouse the crowd Saturday at a Washington Wild Things home game against the Traverse City Beach Bums at Consol Energy Park.
Twins Katie and Karlie Leadingham, 6, of Canonsburg eat cotton candy Saturday as they wait for the start of the Washington Wild Things game against the Traverse City Beach Bums.
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Give Carl Wallace the thwack of a 93-mph fastball into the catcher's mitt, a crisply turned double play, even a routine bunt legged out for a single.
It's an evening in the open air at a Wild Things game. With his wife at his side and a box of popcorn, he is happy.
It is his 11th summer as a partial season ticket holder, and Mr. Wallace has never had a better view than this one: second row behind home plate.
There were seasons when such prime seats were harder to come by. The team once soared in popularity, bringing baseball and throngs of fans to a once-empty tract of land along Interstate 70 just outside Washington, Pa. These days, the team struggles to fill the stands at Consol Energy Park.
Wild Things attendance has dropped every year since 2007, and currently ranks next-to-last in the 14-team Frontier League, averaging 1,624 per game (through Sunday) -- its worst average on record.
It's a troubling streak ownership is struggling to reverse with the injection of $1 million in park improvements, entertainment and a new staff with major league experience.
Making matters worse, the team is 19-31 this year (going into its home game last night against Evansville) and some weeknight dates have drawn fewer than 1,000 fans to the 3,200-seat park.
"It concerns me that people aren't supporting it," said Mr. Wallace, who drives to the games from Greensburg. "These are kids who still have heart. It's exciting. And I don't care if they win or lose. I like the energy they play with."
The drop in attendance, according to Stuart Williams, the team's majority owner and former chief legal officer for Mylan Inc., is because of the country's poor economy.
Mr. Williams became the majority owner of the team and the stadium in the last year, and has sunk $1 million into a new video scoreboard, a new team manager and staff, and hired a firm to revitalize the park's entertainment.
Parking was raised from $3 to $5 and concession prices went up slightly. Still, a family of four can enjoy a night at the ballpark for less than $50. The cheapest seats -- general admission -- cost just $5. The most expensive are $15. For $10 fans can buy a Wild Dog Combo -- a hot dog, French fries and a 32-ounce soda. A beer is $6.
"My strongest sense of the big picture problem is the economy," Mr. Williams said. "People don't have the discretionary dollars right now. I wish our record was better than it is and we could put a more winning team on the field, though I don't really think it's the performance of the team in this instance. Everybody that comes to the stadium laughs and has a good time.
"Nevertheless, it'd be nice if there was the buzz of a winning team."
Other teams in the league have struggled to draw during the past five years, said Steve Tahsler, the Frontier League's deputy commissioner, yet none have dropped as far as Washington.
The Wild Things were an instant hit when they first started to play in 2002 at Falconi Field, which would become Consol Energy Park.
A group of baseball enthusiasts had formed Baseball Scholarships Inc., a nonprofit organization, to bring baseball to the bluff of land in North Franklin Township next to I-70. Baseball Scholarships also uses surplus Wild Things revenues to provide academic scholarships to high school seniors in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties. More than $40,000 in scholarships have been awarded since 2002.
Mr. Williams is one of the original owners of the team. In the past year he has bought out several owners to become managing partner of the team.
Among the members of the current ownership group are Mr. Williams' wife, Francine, former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Coury, president of Coury Financial Group in Pittsburgh. Mr. Dawson and Mr. Coury also were part of the original ownership group.
The nonprofit acted as the landlord of the stadium until recently, when WashCo. Ballpark Holdings was formed by Mr. Williams to purchase the stadium for $3.9 million.
During the team's first summer the stands swelled with fans and continued to draw well for several years. Attendance peaked in 2007, when the team drew 177,495.
That number dropped to 160,444 in 2008, 140,881 in 2009, 116,722 in 2010 and 104,635 last summer.
"The first five or six years, you couldn't get a ticket," said Leo Trich, a former state representative and member of the Ballpark Scholarships board. "Most new facilities have a honeymoon period. We were told two or three, and we got five or six years."
The Wild Things drew the second- and third-best of any team in the Frontier League between its inaugural season in 2002 and 2005. By 2009, they'd dropped to fifth, then to sixth and were ranked seventh in 2010 and 2011.
As the country struggled with a recession, the team started losing with more frequency and opened this year on the heels of three sub-.500 seasons.
"About the time the newness was starting to wear off, the team itself wasn't playing that well. We're Pennsylvanians, and we like our teams to win," Mr. Trich said. "There was a little bit of a drop-off."
Craig Bommer, vice president of the Wheeling Nailers, the Penguins' East Coast Hockey League affiliate, said his club, as well, experienced an attendance drop after initial success, but it eventually leveled off.
"The honeymoon is over for them," Mr. Bommer said of the Wild Things. "It's just about keep adding entertainment now. ... Most of your crowd will not even know what the score is when they leave the building. Don't make it about the game. If you lose, you still want them to leave with a smile."
So that's what the Wild Things have done. The circus came to the ballpark in early July, and professional wrestling. A night of concerts dubbed "Hillbilly State of Mind Tailgate Party" is scheduled for later this summer.
"The more bizarre, the better," team spokeswoman Chris Blaine said. "They did a diagnostic last year. In essence they told us our show was tired. The people had lost their zest. And it has to be more than a baseball game."
The team does not consider the resurgent Pittsburgh Pirates as competition for fans.
"We don't compete with the Pirates. They don't compete with us. At least it's the way we view the relationship," Mr. Williams said. "We are entertainment and we are competing to some degree with restaurants, movie theaters and other options people have."
A new stream of revenue may soon be tapped by the Wild Things.
Out past center field is a hilly landscape -- 40 acres in all -- that Mr. Trich and his group believes may one day bring in profits from natural gas and oil drilling, an industry that has been booming in Washington County.
In the sale of the stadium, Ballpark Scholarships Inc. held onto the mineral rights of the land, and although it has not yet signed a lease with a fuel company, it has high hopes to do so in the near future.
"If they do drill, we believe it could be very valuable," said Colin Fitch, attorney for Ballpark Scholarships. "That's what the Marcellus Shale is turning out to be -- good up-front money and royalties. We're hopeful if it is ever accessed that it'll be worth a considerable amount. But we just don't know."
Any financial gain would first go to carrying out the group's mission of supplying scholarships, said Mr. Trich and Mr. Fitch, but money would be funneled back into the ballpark for capital improvements because of the long-term relationship between the team and the nonprofit.
"The only unknown, of course, is no one knows how much it will generate. We're hopeful it could be sizable," Mr. Trich said.
Mr. Williams said that money is not in his budget because it is such an unknown.
"I just can't count on any revenue coming out of that situation. I've got to think about it but plan as if it doesn't exist," he said. "I'm approaching it as if and when it happens."
For now, all of the club's energy is going to improving the game experience, finding newer ways to attract crowds to the ballpark.
"We've seen the declines through the years," Mr. Trich said. "We're hoping this new ownership group can bring notoriety to the stadium again. They're trying to turn this thing around."
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 18, 2012) The name of the attorney for Ballpark Scholarships Inc., Colin Fitch, was misspelled in a story Tuesday about the Washington Wild Things.
First Published July 17, 2012 12:00 am