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Appy League Teams Tapping Beer to Attract Fans

The Perch

Beer has always been a staple among beverages at baseball games, often running the spectrum from America’s oldest breweries to the latest in craft beers. As a whole, Minor League Baseball teams have not been shy about embracing this trend, but in the Rookie level Appalachian League, beer has only recently become a common ballpark commodity.

For many years, the majority of franchises in the 10-team circuit were subject to stricter liquor laws and/or general disinterest in the product from fans, but now beer and other alcoholic beverages are catching on at ballparks across the league.

One of the strongest examples of this trend is the Johnson City Cardinals. Before the 2014 season, the Cardinals sought permission to sell alcohol for the first time in roughly a decade. At first, the reaction from some corners—including fans and elected leaders—was squarely against them.

“It was at first, honestly,” said Cardinals general manager Tyler Parsons when asked if the process was hard on the team. “There’s two different sides of the coin—our general fans and sponsors were behind it, but we had some fans and city officials who were against it.”

The Cardinals eventually agreed to a series of uncommon restrictions. The team did not offer alcohol on Wednesdays or Sundays, and sales were prohibited during non-gameday events. The Cardinals also designated a family section, a seating area where alcohol is forbidden.

“It was something that we added in there before we went to the city,” said Parsons. “We wanted to make sure we did it the right way, cross our t’s and dot our i’s, so to speak, and went from there.” The family section, however, never caught on with fans, and was phased out.

This year, the Cardinals added The Perch, a 250-seat, two-tied beer garden/group area down the left field line. Unlike the family section, it has proven to be a popular destination.

“The data we collected in the last couple of years was trending towards that direction, which is that beer sales were growing every year,” Parsons said. “Really, what we lacked inside this ballpark was those hospitality and group areas where fans could go and socialize and not be stuck in their seats facing the field.”

The Cardinals underwent a change in operator before this season, with Boyd Sports taking over the team’s daily management. That required the team to rework its alcohol policy with the city, a process that was completely different from the one the Cardinals experienced in 2014.

“When we did our vote in 2014, we won on a 3-2 vote,” said Parsons. “It was 5-0 yes after Boyd Sports took over.” The team is now allowed to sell on a year-round basis, including on previously restricted dates. The Cardinals also offer a team-branded beer—Cardinal Park Red Ale—that is brewed by the local Johnson City Brewing Company.

The developments in Johnson City and other Appy League towns comes as little surprise for some, including Burlington Royals GM Ryan Keur. Burlington is rare for an Appalachian League franchise in that it has sold beer throughout its 31-season history.

“When Miles [Wolff] brought the team to Burlington, it was a pretty big to do,” said Keur, “and apparently one of the reasons he put the team here was because he could sell alcohol.” From Keur’s understanding, initial skepticism towards the idea quickly faded. “Back in ’86, there was some backlash with selling alcohol at a city facility, but overtime it has gravitated towards a positive reception.”

The ability to sell alcohol gives the Royals some unique opportunities. Burlington Athletic Stadium hosted its first beer fest this spring, and the team features similar gameday offerings. “We are able to do a lot of different things with promotions,” said Keur. “Last year we incorporated a mug club contest that can be refilled every single game, so it opens up some sponsorship commitments.”

Currently the team offers 14 beers on tap, part of its effort to embrace the trend and attract a broader range of fans. “From two to 92, we want people to have a good time at the ballpark,” Keur said. “At the same time, we want to attract different age groups by having different promotions. People in their 20’s and 30’s aren’t always sitting next to families, so people are separated to some extent, but they are always having a good time.”

When Keur first joined the Royals in 2011, they were just one of four teams that sold alcohol. Over time, however, it has spread throughout the league. “In each league meeting over the past few years, a common question that was coming up was ‘if we were going to sell beer, how would we get started?’ It’s kind of been a league transformation,” he said. “From a business standpoint, I think selling alcohol is a necessity.”

In Johnson City, the Cardinals have seen beer sales soar to the point where a second beer garden could be added in the future. “More teams are embracing the economic impact it can have, and the fan base impact it can have,” Parsons said. “We’ve seen our fan base turn from mostly older fans and older families, to younger professionals and fans with more disposable income.

While more teams have added alcohol to their offerings, there are still two clubs that still do not serve it at the ballpark: The Princeton Rays and the Elizabethton Twins.

According to Rays GM Nick Carey, fan feedback suggests that alcohol would be well received in Princeton, but the teams faces some challenges. “Princeton is a small town anyway, so when you’re the operator of the franchise, everybody wants their voice heard. For the most part, I get that question out in public. There is a fair amount of desire here, but it’s a matter of lifting state and federal regulations.”

The Rays’ H.P. Hinnicutt Field is located on the same property with multiple schools, and the parcel is owned by Mercer County Schools. As part of the restrictions for being at that location, the Rays cannot sell alcohol, and they face heavy regulation when it comes to advertising businesses that sell alcohol, specialize in tobacco, or offer gambling.

In Elizabethton, the situation is different in that alcohol sales have never been expected at Joe O’Brien Field. “To be just perfectly honest, one of the things is just the fan base,” said GM Mike Mains. “It just does not seem to be one of things that fans are interested in.”

The Twins are currently in the process of trying to secure city funding for upgrades to Joe O’Brien Field. When considering what elements to incorporate into the project, the Twins have made modernized fan amenities—including upgraded seating—a priority, but Mains does not foresee alcohol sales being added in the process.

“For us, our fans come, they enjoy the game of baseball, and they’ve seen tons of future big leaguers play at Joe O’Brien. When something seems to be working, you just don’t make changes. We’ve made changes to the stadium over the years, and we hope to make more changes to the game day experience, but alcohol sales are not really on the table for discussion.”

Should alcohol ever be proposed, it would likely require a thorough city review because of the team’s unique management structure. “With us, we’re a little different than many other minor league teams,” said Mains. “We are basically a parks and recreation department that is operating a minor league team, so we are part of city government. It’s a bit different than having the stadium run by a private owner, so that plays into this.”

Although alcohol sales might not be in the cards for the Twins and the Rays, both find alternatives to attract a diverse age range of fans.

“What we do to counter that is cater to retirees who may have grandchildren, and families in the area,” said Carey. “We also try to get the 12-13 year old demographic, get them engaged, and get them used to coming to the ballpark as they get older. It’s about trying to hit both ends of the whole spectrum, because without alcohol we have a hard time hitting that middle age range.”

Elizabethton has taken steps to loosen some of its liquor laws in recent years, and Mains said that the team would be open to adding the product should fan demand increase. For now, though, he is focused on keeping the franchise true to its fan base. “There is a lot of history for the game of baseball, and fans come to the game and see a winning product on the field and promotions that families can enjoy. It’s just a little bit different community.”

Image of The Perch by Bret Jacomet, Johnson City Cardinals.

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