Slammers’ owners target value-driven baseball fans
By Bob Okon firstname.lastname@example.org May 7, 2013 10:30PM
Fans are seen near the outfield during a game between the Joliet Slammers and Normal CornBelters at Silver Cross Field Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 9, 2013 6:36AM
The new owners of the Joliet Slammers should be satisfied if they get lots of games like Tuesday, when nearly 3,000 laughing, yelling schoolchildren came to Silver Cross Field for an exhibition baseball game.
“I love the energy,” Nick Semaca, one of the new owners, said, hoping that the kids, brought by their schools for Education Day, would tell their family and friends how much fun they had. “We’ve got 3,000 new members of our marketing team out there.”
Semaca and the other owners are counting on attracting and satisfying fans to boost a club that has its third set of owners in four years and seeks to make a profit for the first time during the period. The independent minor-league team also changed its name from JackHammers to Slammers before the 2011 season.
The new owners head to Opening Day on May 17 with customer service and value at the top of their priority list. The formula was working Tuesday.
Of course, the kids were happy to be away from school. But their elders said the day at the ballpark was a good one.
“It seems like they were really paying attention to the kids,” Michelle Pillish, of Crest Hill, said.
The team mascots were mingling, kids were running the bases and Pillish’s daughter Alyson, a fifth grader at St. Mary’s Nativity School in Joliet, liked the visuals on the Slammers’ version of a Jumbotron.
“Being able to see her friends on the big screen, that was exciting,” Pillish said.
That was no accident either. Just minutes earlier, Slammer chief executive Josh Schaub, also an owner, mentioned to a reporter that there are four cameras around the ballpark to capture more live shots of fans at the game.
Sights, sounds and fundamentals
Schaub emphasizes that the team is selling entertainment as much as baseball, and he wants the fans to get a big dose of entertainment with each visit to Silver Cross Field.
“We should start entertaining them as soon as they get out of their cars,” he said, adding that live and recorded music will be played outside of the stadium before games this year. “People should start hearing sounds, hearing music. That’s important. People sometimes don’t remember the score. But they remember how they felt. They remember sights and sounds and smells.”
This won’t be the first year that fans get an entertaining experience at Silver Cross Field. The JackHammers, in their last season in 2010, pulled out all the stops with racing monkeys, human cannonballs and even the San Diego Chicken. But they didn’t pay the Chicken, as the business went bad before the end of that season.
Schaub said the new owners are a diverse group of business people with experience in fundamentals such as customer service, operations and planning.
“We’ve proven we can execute a business plan,” he said.
So far, ticket sales are 32 percent ahead of last year, the team says. And, the Slammers have sold more luxury-suite dates than the team did for the entire 2012 season.
Fans and food
Schaub likes nothing more than to talk about how the Slammers have lowered food prices, made the value-priced hot dogs and beer easier to find and created new options such as all-you-can-eat buffets. During an early-bird special, fans can buy hot dogs for $1 and hamburgers for $2.25.
High food prices were the main complaint of fans, and the new management listened. It formed an advisory committee of season-ticket holders to give the owners insight into what the fans want.
Food was the main topic immediately, said Josh Wrobel, of Morris, an 11-year season-ticket holder on the committee.
“They asked, ‘What’s the top thing we need to work on?’ We said, ‘Food prices,’” Wrobel said.
Not all food prices were lowered, but none were raised. And Slammers management said fans will find lower-priced items available at more concession stands this season, so people won’t have to hunt for value.
“I love the new owners,” Wrobel said. “They came to us and said, ‘We want to know how to succeed here in Joliet. We want to hear your thoughts on how to succeed.’”
Not that the new guys don’t have ideas of their own, some taken from other minor-league parks where they proved successful. There will be small touches like beer vendors being introduced by name to the fans before games. A no-ticket-wasted policy allows fans to switch tickets to another game if something comes up. A new $5 seat is being offered.
“It’s a great, affordable night out with the family, whether you like baseball or not,” Slammers general manager Chris Franklin said. “We have folks who just come back for the (Friday night) fireworks shows.”
Weddings and bar mitzvahs?
The Slammers hope to bring in people when there are no games, too. The team now has a special events coordinator, Lauren Las, who interned with the Washington Nationals, whose park was used for weddings and bar mitzvahs on off days.
The Slammers have been lining up church outings for the stadium, and Las said she’d like to host retirement parties and other special occasions. No wedding or bar mitzvah has been scheduled yet, but the team has a website, www.silvercrossfield.com, dedicated to marketing the stadium for non-baseball events.
The site lists five movie nights, starting June 14 with a showing of “Monsters, Inc.” For $1, families can lie on the grass, watch a movie and eat ballpark food at discount prices. On June 15, Silver Cross Field will host a yard sale. The Hopstring Fest music event is returning on Aug. 24.
With all the high hopes that come with the start of another baseball season, the outfield wall at Silver Cross Field is a reminder that business is not what it was when the JackHammers started in 2002 and played in a packed park. The wall, once filled with advertising signs, has several empty spots.
Schaub said some of those spots will fill up as the season goes on. He acknowledges that the Slammers need to build back a business that was damaged by the recession.
“The economy really took a hit on a lot of people,” Schaub said. “We’re bringing back some value-driven things that should really attract people.”