Since launching in 2014, the El Paso Chihuahuas (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) have maintained a commitment to a high-quality fan experience. And after a climactic 2019 season that saw two high-profile events held at Southwest University Park, the team earns the 2019 Continued Excellence Award in the annual Ballpark Digest Awards.
The Continued Excellence Award honors teams that excel year in and year out. Many of the other Ballpark Digest awards are geared for peak annual performances, but the Continued Excellence Award takes a long view of what a team accomplishes over the course of several years.
“That’s the thing ultimately we are most proud of—the sustained success we have been fortunate to enjoy,” said Alan Ledford, president of MountainStar Sports Group, owner of both the Chihuahuas and USL El Paso Locomotive FC. “Our goal was not just to be a success in the honeymoon window, but to be a long-term success.”
“Our goal is to be like a Durham or a Lehigh Valley that keep doing it well year after year—that’s what we want to be,” added Brad Taylor, Senior Vice-President, MountainStar Sports Group, El Paso Chihuahuas and El Paso Locomotive FC.
This year saw the Chihuahuas host both the Triple-A All-Star Game and the Minor League Baseball Innovators Summit, in the course of drawing 7,578 fans a game. (That number, by the way, is pretty close to what the Chihuahuas drew in 2014.) In 2015 Southwest University Park hosted the Triple-A Baseball National Championship, giving El Paso three very high-profile events in the course of five years. In addition, the Chihuahuas in 2019 launched a playoff USL Championship team, the El Paso Locomotive, playing out of Southwest University Park and ranking 10th in league attendance, at 6,584 fans a game.
“We’re proud to have hosted the marquee events in Minor League Baseball,” Ledford added. “To have done that in just our first six seasons is a reflection on the industry’s perception of our venue and our market and the success we’ve enjoyed.”
Ledford and Taylor attributed the continued success of the Chihuahuas to a variety of factors:
- A local ownership group that provides resources and support to power a high level of excellence. “We have a great ownership group looking to enhance the fan experience,” Taylor said. “They let us keep improving the ballpark and hospitality areas.”
- A strong staff, with that same dedication to excellence. “These people are dedicated to being great,” Taylor said. “They show up every day and put in a great effort.”
- An underlying expectation that everything the Chihuahuas do is at the highest level. “That doesn’t mean we’re always successful, but when there are issues, we fix them and we learn from them,” Ledford said.
- A commitment to the community. “This is our guiding light,” Ledford said. “The objectives of our organization are to promote quality of life and economic development using sports, as in our ballpark and team. We have really made a difference in the community, and this community has benefited. We’ve gone far beyond sports and baseball—we’ve helped create the identify for the region. [Baseball] has been a critical part of the economic development toolkit for the city and the other entities in the region that work to attract investments in El Paso.” That also means using the ballpark for more than just the 70 baseball dates: it means hosting events like weddings, marathons and other events. “When we launched the team, we were very clear in our mission that it would be more than just baseball,” Taylor said.
That also means extending the reputation of El Paso past Texas. In hosting the Minor League Baseball Innovators Summit, the Chihuahuas returned to their roots: former El Paso Diablos (Class AA; Texas League) owner Jim Paul launched the El Paso Promotional Baseball Seminar in 1977, later selling it to Minor League Baseball. The return of the seminar to El Paso, with an updated theme, was one of Taylor’s seasonal highlights.
“It was great that Jim Paul was able to be there—it was highest attended seminar in 40 years,” Taylor said, with over 90 MiLB teams represented. “Our goal was to bring everyone in, show them a great time, and then create ambassadors for our city when they left.”
Helping the Healing Process
The team was also central in how El Paso addressed a tragic event in the 2019 season: an August 3 mass shooting where a gunman entered a Walmart and killed 22 people while injuring 24 others. It was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States so far this year with elements of domestic terrorism and racism, and shook the citizens of a city that takes pride in a low crime rate and cordial relations with those across the border. A Community Memorial Service was held at Southwest University Park on August 14 to commemorate the victims. In addition, the MountainStar Sports Group Foundation—on behalf of the El Paso Chihuahuas Foundation, El Paso Locomotive FC Foundation, the Foster Family Foundation, and Hunt Family Foundation—donated $150,000 donation to victims’ relief, as well as playing a role in other community efforts.
“The circumstance that sums up our small role in the community moving forward was a comment I heard from an attendee: I can’t imagine going through this without this team and this ballpark,” Ledford said. “I took a step back and reflected on the role we were able to play. We were ultimately the venue the city chose for the memorial, to be part of the healing process.
“We took a lot of pride in playing that role. Our staff was suffering along with everything else.”
“I was proud we did the memorial,” Taylor added. “We had an opportunity for people to remember and be together.”
Adding Soccer to the Mix
MountainStar Sports Group was one of several MiLB organizations—including the Memphis Redbirds (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) and Lansing Lugnuts (Low A; Midwest League)—to invest in USL Championship and USL League One teams in 2019, joining the Reno Aces in the USL Championship fold. (In other cities, soccer teams in Nashville, Tulsa, Fresno, Louisville and Albuquerque are tenants in MiLB ballparks, under separate ownership, while USL Championship’s Tacoma Defiance is managed by the Tacoma Rainiers on the business side but not on the soccer technical side.) Adding pro soccer to the mix was a substantial undertaking: MountainStar Sports Group added approximately 17-18 staffers on the business side, with a few overlapping from the existing baseball staff.
“Any time you integrate two organizations, whether it’s two Fortune 500 companies or two smaller entities like ours, is a big challenge,” Ledford said. “It’s hard—there’s no doubt about it. But a startup is hard, and we learned a lot by making adjustments. It’s tantamount to water finding its own level.”
Year two of the Locomotive should be a smoother experience, he added, with processes and staff in place. A long-term goal of MountainStar Sports Group is to procure a soccer-specific facility within El Paso: soccer in a ballpark can be a mixed experience, and the USL’s long-term goal is to develop soccer-specific venues on both the Championship and League One levels.
Besides the success at the box office, however, Ledford said the USL team was a success on another level: raising the national profile of El Paso.
“At the end of the day we are fulfilling the vision of the organization. Now El Paso is talked about in the context of those communities that have Triple-A baseball and USL Championship teams. It really shines a different light on our community.”
Best Marketing Campaign: Salt Lake Bees
Commitment to Charity Award: Kane County Cougars
Charity Event Award: Quad Cities River Bandits
Best Ballpark Improvement (Under $1M): Calfee Park Party Deck
MLB Broadcaster of the Year: Marty Brennaman
Best New Logo/Branding: Fayetteville Woodpeckers
Best New Food Item: Crabzilla, Pensacola Blue Wahoos
Best New Concessions Experience: Pensacola Blue Wahoos
MiLB Broadcaster of the Year: Jesse Goldberg-Strassler
Promotion of the Year: Funko Fridays
Best Ballpark Improvement (Over $1M): City of Baseball Museum
Ballpark of the Year: Las Vegas Ballpark
Team of the Year: Las Vegas Aviators
Best Ballpark Renovation: American Family Fields of Phoenix