The last two seasons should have been gravy time for the Sioux Falls Fighting Pheasants (independent; American Association) as the team set marks for wins. Instead, attendance is plunging after branding and concession changes. What can be done to stem the tide?
No doubt managing partner Gary Weckwerth thought he was opening a new chapter in Sioux Falls baseball after buying the team and changing the team name from Canaries to Fighting Pheasants. Along the way ballpark operations were overhauled, with Ovations brought in to run concessions, and manager Steve Shirley established a winning program on the field.
Instead of crowds swarming the Bird Cage, the opposite happened: attendance plummeted 35 percent last season to 1,922 per game, and it’s even lower this season, some 1,226 fans a game. (That number will rise in coming weeks after school lets out for the summer, though.) What went wrong?
Lots of little things, it seems. First, popular GM John Kuhn was let go. A former Goldklang Group employee and an indy-ball veteran, Kuhn brought many Veeckian touches to the ballpark, greeting fans at the gates and making his presence known throughout the game. He brought in some high-profile promotions along with some high-profile sponsors; he made headlines selling deep-fried turkey testicles, but did it with the backing of a major sponsor. Sioux Falls is a town where a colorful hand needs to draw attention: remember, Mike Veeckhimself spent a few summer there running operations when the Goldklang Group managed operations.
In retrospect, dumping the traditional Sioux Falls Canaries name — a name with a long history in Sioux Falls baseball — was also a strategic blunder. Instead of embracing the city’s baseball legacy as did previous owners, the new owners decided to start from scratch with a new name, new colors and new look.
“People tell me that it saddens them how no one is coming to the park,” Weckwerth told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “If it goes away, people are going to be (complaining) about how they don’t have anything to do. But they have to support it, or we’re not going to be here. We’ll have to make changes, whether that means selling or looking at another league or something, because we can’t afford it the way it’s going.”
Of course, such talk will fuel rumors that the owners are looking to move down to the summer-collegiate Northwoods League, a rumor that’s been floating for at least a year. We’re not going to get into the economics of the summer-collegiate game versus indy ball, but it’s worth noting that the Weckworth ownership group also owns the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede — a junior team run along the same lines as a summer-collegiate baseball team.
(Editor’s note: Publisher Kevin Reichard has occasionally done uncompensated color work on Pheasants radio broadcasts.)
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