A new era of baseball in Boise is starting strong, as the once downtrodden Boise Hawks (short season A; Northwest League) soared to new attendance heights in 2015. At the forefront of the Hawks’ surge was a new owner in Agon Sports and Entertainment, along with a shift in sales philosophy and a change in the parent club.
The Hawks had endured some hardships entering 2015. Once a solidly drawing team in a rapidly growing Idaho city, the Hawks went through some attendance struggles at the beginning of this decade, and averaged just a little more than 2,300 fans a game in 2014. The backdrop of this was an ongoing push to replace the aging Memorial Stadium, a 1989 facility that was testing the patience of the Hawks’ parent club, the Chicago Cubs.
Despite these struggles, Agon Sports and Entertainment—led by Jeff Eiseman and Chris Schoen—was interested in acquiring the team, and announced an agreement last September to purchase the club from Minor League Holdings, LLC.
While it looked as if Eiseman and Schoen were making a considerable risk, Boise—a growing city with more than 216,000 residents, according to the most recent figures, in the midst of the third-largest MSA in the Pacific Northwest, trailing only Portland and Seattle—was already on their radar. “For us, when we we’re looking at a possible expansion of our group, we’re always looking for dynamic markets or markets with a lot of upside,” said Eiseman, who perceived Boise as “one of the best short season-a markets in the country that hadn’t been given the best platform to showcase itself.”
The agreement did not take effect until the end of 2014, and Agon opted to leave the existing staff—including then president Todd Rahr—in place, but brought in Bob Flannery as the new general manager. Before coming to Boise, Flannery had worked with Agon’s other club, the Augusta GreenJackets (Low A; Sally League) from 2012-2013, and had previously turned in stints with several other minor league clubs, including the Hagerstown Suns (Low A; Sally League) and the Midland RockHounds (Class AA; Texas League). (For the purpose of disclosure, he and I are friends from his time in Hagerstown).
With the experience in similar facilities, Flannery had an understanding of what it would take to make the most of Memorial Stadium. “That starts from the top,” Flannery said of his vision for Boise. “We got our staff together and said ‘look despite the stadium, which we know is challenging, if we can talk about the changes and fan experience, people will still come out.’”
The regime coincided with the arrival of a new parent club in the Colorado Rockies. Though the Rockies lack the national following of the Cubs, they share the Mountain Time zone with the Hawks, thereby providing a regional connection that Agon believed was important. “We looked at it and thought the club had an opportunity to reinvent itself all the way around,” said Eiseman. Flannery credited the Rockies with their efforts to reach out to the Boise market, including a caravan visit last February, and said that Rockies merchandise and purple Hawks apparel became popular souvenirs with fans.
To boost fan support, the Hawks opted to pursue a strategy that engaged season-ticket holders by offering incentives such as an exclusive gate, guaranteed giveaways, and additional picnics and other events. According to Flannery, “the discipline from within the company from Jeff and [vice president of operations] Missy Martin, and from us being there locally,” was to focus on season ticket sales as a way to help the Hawks maintain and grow their base of fans. Eiseman credited Flannery and Rahr with stressing the importance of beneficial dialogue with season ticket holders that gave the fans “a voice with the team” and furthered the Hawks’ understanding of the Boise market. “We value our season ticket holders,” said Eisman. “They’re really the base, the driving force,” that allows the team to connect with the community.
Along with energizing and expanding their base of season ticket holders, the Hawks sought to make small improvements to Memorial Stadium. The Hawks Nest was renovated into The Purple Porch, which give fans new options when it came to group outings and general admission seating. Among the other changes to Memorial Stadium included three rows of new seats behind home plate, new netting around the field, an upgraded sound system, and replacing the signage around the ballpark.
The Hawks also spiced up their promotional offerings. The team began hosting firework nights on Friday and Saturday’s, as opposed to just Fridays, offered a new all-you-can eat Monday promotion, and tapped into some of industry’s larger trends by hosting a Christmas in July and adding a bat dog. “All of those things appeal to different people,” said Flannery. “So when you get into driving up attendance, it’s about being open minded to those things.”
Those factors helped the Hawks increase their per-game average attendance to 2,893 fans, one of Minor League Baseball’s largest bumps from 2014 to 2015. The team is currently in the process of reviewing their data from this season to shape a strategy for next year, and is looking to beef up its group sales efforts. Eisman said that when it comes to these factors, as well as promotions, the team is always looking to customer feedback for improvement. “We’ll either invent new things, change what we have, or leave things alone because they’re working.”
While they have established a viable presence in Boise, the Hawks still have their eye on a new ballpark. Eiseman, whose group is planning a new ballpark for the GreenJackets, said that they are trying to create the rapport with the Boise community by “having conversations and building constituencies with the right groups to do this.” He added that he is “cautiously optimistic about June of 2018,” as a potential opening date for a new ballpark.
Meanwhile, the ownership and the staff will work to make sure that the Hawks remain a viable franchise, regardless of their home ballpark. “Yes, we do need a new ballpark,” said Flannery, who added that he and the staff are under the mentality of making the “the best of what we have.” He said that regardless of where they play, he and the front office make it their goal to “take care of our guests, and making sure they have a terrific time.”
With a formula to engage the fans in place, Eiseman sees a bright future ahead. “The Hawks’ best days are ahead of them, and not behind them.”
Photo by Mark Cryan.