Take Me Out to the Ball Game
I’m a Syracuse Chiefs fan. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that, and probably would like me tweet a bit less about it. I’ve tweeted lots of photos and comments about games this year, made fun of the Chiefs on my timeline, and last year I waged a quixotic battle trying to get the ‘Chiefs’ to change their name to the Salt Potatoes (which I still think would be a better name – see the Montgomery Biscuits). Part of the reason I do this is because even a lot of baseball fans think minor league ball is a weak substitute for the big league game, and not much fun. But they are wrong, and I want to share the fun that can be had at NBT Bank Stadium. A lot of the fun is a result of the social experiences surrounding the game, so you don’t even need to be a baseball lover to enjoy an evening at the ballpark.
— Matt Loveland (@mtloveland) April 18, 2014
The Bad Old Days
I’ve regularly attended Chiefs games since we moved to Syracuse in 2005. Unfortunately, back then, the experience at Chiefs’ games was never on par with the other minor league teams I’d followed closely (Beloit Snappers, South Bend Silverhawks, and Auburn Doubledays) or visited (quite a few over the years). I’ve complained about it elsewhere, and I touch on it here just as context for what’s changed, but from parking, to finding your seat, to buying a beer, few Chiefs’ staff appeared very interested in ever seeing you return to ‘Chiefsville.’ The Chiefs’ between-inning entertainment, a hallmark of minor league ball, was never as wacky or as fun as other places, the scoreboard often failed or was just wrong, and the music was always too loud. The stadium was usually mostly empty, and the old school AstroTurf mocked the baseball fan’s obsession with fresh cut grass.
The old leadership did attempt to address some of those problems. A new scoreboard modernized the stadium, and replacing the turf with real grass improved the aesthetics immensely. They tried a new food service provider which was an improvement, adding a mascot (Pops – to try to convince us the ‘Chiefs’ name is about railroads…), and some other minor things. A new affiliation with the Nationals brought a team with a good minor league system and stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper through town. However, for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, it felt like the leadership had essentially given up on ever turning the failing franchise around. A colleague of mine who arrived in 2012, a bigger ball fan than me, praised the overgrown patch of unkempt woods behind the outfield fence as evidence that the team was saying, ‘Look, it’s baseball, and that’s all it is. Shut up and like it.’ Unfortunately there aren’t many folks attracted to minor league ball with just a game. Short drives to Rochester or Auburn, NY would provide a significantly fresher and more exciting baseball experience for the casual fan, and it was clear that a lot of people in Syracuse were choosing to spend their entertainment dollar elsewhere.
Producing the Fun
Evidence in support of the relatively negative view above came at the end of 2013 when the Syracuse Chiefs announced a $1 million dollar deficit. While the story is quite complicated, in response, the team’s board named a new general manager, Jason Smorol. From the start, Smorol has been clear that he intends to transform the fan experience of Chiefs’ games. He has a track record of success with the Auburn Doubledays. I try to get to Auburn a few times a summer, and while Smorol was gone by the time I got here, I can confirm that fans in Auburn are much more passionate about their team than are Chiefs fans, and the stadium experience beyond the game has been much more welcoming and engaging.
30 games in to the season, with the Chiefs sitting at 15 wins and 15 losses, is there evidence things are changing down in ‘Chiefsville?’ The first thing one notices is a much better managed parking lot. The fan experience starts here, before you are in the stadium, because the emotional consequences of these interactions are carried to the seats. The attendants I’ve interacted with have all been smiling and helpful, instead of yelling and inattentive as in years past. I’ve felt welcomed to the games by staff inside the stadium hawking programs and hot dogs, it’s nice when they all say goodnight as you leave, and the hospitality continues once reach your seat. Before each game, Jason Smorol takes the field to ‘MC’ ceremonial first pitches and announce upcoming promotions. It makes the night feel like an event, whereas in previous years it often felt like no one was quite sure why we’d gathered. As the game plays out, between innings contests and video board segments have been updated and are delivered with significantly more energy. While nothing outrageously different than what I’ve seen at other stadiums, it isn’t the novelty of these activities that makes them valuable as much as it is how they help to keep everyone focused on the event. The ongoing and shared focus of the crowd, no matter its size, is what makes it a ‘crowd’ rather than a bunch of folks who happen to be in the same place.
On social media, the Chiefs became more visible on Twitter last year, but this year they have started to engage with fans more regularly, including a number of in-game promotions. My alter ego’s (@SyrChiefsFan) tweets have made it onto the score board as part of the #GannonChiefsBuzz promotion, and the team and its representatives have interacted with me quite a bit via Twitter.
— Syracuse Chiefs Fan (@SyrChiefsFan) May 3, 2014
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the winner of the ‘Tweet Your Seat’ promotion, so I got to watch Sunday’s game from a suite.
It was a lot of fun, and these are exactly the kinds of things less committed Chiefs’ fans would appreciate too, I think.
Keep up the good (emotion) work
So, what’s the sociological moral of the story (this is a sociology blog, after all)? I think the the Chiefs’ staff are doing the emotional and relational work needed to make a night at the ball park fun for those who need a bit more than just the game. All that stuff is fun for folks like me who were going for the games alone, too. A .500 team, which hasn’t always been guaranteed over the years, is gravy. I hope they can keep up the play, and it’s fun to watch the prospects who are getting playing time, but I also hope they keep up the ‘fan relations’ work. Even in the face of what have been small crowds, it’s going convince folks to head down for a night of fun at the Chiefs game. Personally, I know that I feel a lot more willing to support the new feel of Chiefs’ games this year. It’s why I created the dedicated Twitter account, and it’s why I became a season ticket holder. I’ll be heading down to the stadium to meet with some friends in about 20 minutes, for the 6th day in a row, and I’m genuinely excited about it in ways I haven’t been over the last 8 seasons.