Ed Carter, utahvalley360.com
Utah County clearly loves a winner, but a new minor league baseball franchise is testing whether local sports fans will support a team of their own regardless of the club’s win-loss record.
The Provo Angels, who opened their initial season at BYU’s Miller Park June 16, have scheduled a full complement of giveaways and promotions to go along with strikeouts and home runs in drawing fans.
In minor league baseball, where club owners cannot control the talent on the field because players are assigned by a major league affiliate, the off-the-field attractions are at least as important as what happens on the base paths.
LESSONS FROM HELENA
Rob Owens is a Los Angeles attorney who co-owns the team and serves as club president. Owens learned during several seasons in Helena, Montana, that filling seats does not necessarily depend on having a team full of future major leaguers.
“Often you can’t control how good the team is,” Owens said. “I think fans in minor league cities understand that.
“At the same time, there’s a natural reaction to be happy when your team wins.”
The Angels are a rookie team in the Pioneer League, which is stocked with young prospects recently out of high school and college. As part of the Southern Division, Provo will compete with teams from Idaho Falls, Ogden and Casper, Wyoming. The season concludes Sept. 2.
Owens grew up watching the Cubs play at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Although the Cubs were perennial also-rans, another Chicago institution taught a lesson that seems to embody the attitude of Utah County sports fans.
Long-time Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley ran the operations of the Cook County Democratic machine on this philosophy: “Don’t make no little plans, don’t back no losers.”
As evidenced by their relationship with BYU athletic teams, Utah County fans like their sports clubs on top of the heap. But with a population base of well over 300,000 to draw from — more than 10 times that of Helena — the Angels expect to fill the stadium, win or lose.
MARKETING TO FIT THE MARKET
With a marketing strategy aimed at the unique Utah County market, the team seems to have established a good foundation to do just that. Regular “Scout Nights” cater to local Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops, while the Family Home Evening crowd is drawn in by the offer of free Monday night admission for children who join the “Future Angels Club.”
Also, Monday home games begin at 5:05 p.m. rather than the regular 7:05 p.m. starts. In deference to both BYU and Provo city officials, the Angels do not play home games on Sunday, either. Instead, they will play several Saturday doubleheaders and will spend most of their Sundays on the road.
The lone Sunday home game — Aug. 12 against the Missoula Osprey — will be staged in Ogden.
“We’ve spent a couple of years coming here (to Provo) and trying to learn about the market,” Owens said. “Our marketing approach really hasn’t changed much but we’ve adapted to account for larger families and church groups.”
DRIVING IN THE FANS
Co-owner Linda Gach Ray, whose business card lists her title as chairman and “Director of Fun,” says her objective as a baseball owner is “making kids happy.”
To accomplish that, the Angels will allow local Little League teams to join the minor league players during the national anthem performed at the outset of each home game. The Little Leaguers will then run with the Angels as they take their positions on the field. That program is called “Baseball Buddies.”
Other promotions include the Aug. 25 Larry King Night, where the CNN talk-show host will handle some play-by-play duties and judge a look-alike contest, and a cooperative effort with Provo police officers, who will “ticket” children spotted doing a good deed.
In addition, the club will offer a free root beer night, a Daily Herald-run sports writing clinic and buy-one-get-one-free hotdogs on Wednesdays. Also, a fan will win a free car from Barber Brothers of Orem if an Angels player hits a grand slam in the sixth inning of a weekend game. Fireworks will follow the June 30 home game. Live radio broadcasts of games will air on 960 AM (KOVO).
“I think the Provo Angels will be a major entertainment draw in this area,” predicted General Manager Gerry McKearney.
Owens and Gach Ray, who started their respective law practices as junior associates at the same Los Angeles firm and later formed their own business litigation firm, attack the task of building a minor league identity in Provo the same way they would approach a major litigation action.
OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME
As with law, minor league baseball presents several challenges.
One of the first obstacles the owners had to overcome was the perception that the Angels were after 12-year-old prospects instead of 19-year-olds.
“It’s a very sports-minded area but some people just don’t understand,” McKearney said. “They think we are a Little League team that their kids can sign up for.”
Local teens and pre-teens won’t make the roster, but they can join the Future Angels Club. For $10, kids under 12 get free admission to every Monday game, a T-shirt, an autograph and picture day with Angels players, a souvenir game program, and $1 off general admission tickets for all Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday home games.
A second obstacle the Angels have faced is skepticism.
“There’s a credibility factor that we need to establish,” Gach Ray said. “People say, ‘They announced baseball in Provo several years ago and it didn’t come, so we’ll believe it when we see it.’”
FINDING A HOME BASE
Another challenge that has yet to be conquered is the construction of a new baseball stadium.
The Angels worked out an agreement with BYU to play at the new Miller Park for the 2001 season, but the team hopes to play in a new city-owned ballpark in southeast Provo next year.
That planned stadium would seat 3,000 fans and cost about $4 million to build. The Provo Economic Development Department is seeking private donations to assist with the project.
“We still have hopes that a stadium could be ready by next season,” Owens said.
Two factors kept minor league baseball out of Provo for years. First, potential teams feared that no Sunday play and no beer at the stadium meant financial doom. Second, Salt Lake Stingers owner Joe Buzas held the ownership rights to minor league baseball in Utah County.
The Angels believe they have resolved both of those challenges, thus bringing professional baseball to Provo for the first time since the semi-pro Provo Timps played in the Utah Industrial League in the mid-20th century.
With the territorial rights issue resolved and a team in place, the bases are loaded. Whether Utah County fans strike out or hit a home run remains to be seen.