Baseball Is Happiness! Not on this night…
The frustration and disappointment I felt with the Joliet Slammers was intense, I wanted to find the ownership to let them know; I wasn’t upset with the baseball team, they played well but lost 2-1 to the Washington Wild Things. It was the fan experience that was terrible, there is no other word for it.
As I drove the two hours to Joliet, Illinois from Milwaukee on Friday night, I started thinking about what I was going to write about, I hit upon how teams at all levels of baseball need to rebrand themselves every 5-10 years.
At the MLB level they are constantly doing themed uniforms; at the lower levels they utilize creative team names, uniforms and promotions. Some stalwarts such as the Yankees and Dodgers have no need to do a brand refresh since their fan bases are expansive and would be pissed, but they have gotten into doing theme uniforms, this is a boon for teams.
I was excited as I started thinking about Joliet, they call themselves the Slammers, a play on the city’s history and the Joliet Correctional Center which was located in the city from 1858 until 2002, and the close proximity of Stateville Correctional Center.
I admit, I am an intense person by nature and have always needed to take a moment before speaking, I have taken that moment and I am still passionate with my response regarding Joliet.
I had a great fan experience on Tuesday night in Kenosha with the Kingfish of the NWL, which is a college summer wood bat league. They played in an old stadium, the field wasn’t perfect, the players unknowns, but the Kingfish embraced what they had, they entertained with games and activities for the kids, maintained fan engagement between innings and had the obligatory dirty and undersized mascot. And for the most part it was run by college interns trying to gain experience. It wasn’t polished or sterile but if you asked the kids and their parents, they will say it was entertaining.
Joliet plays in the Frontier League, a professional independent baseball league with teams in the Northeast and Midwest, United States and a couple of teams in Canada, the league is a MLB partner. This is a step up from the Northwoods League the Kingfish play in or so I thought.
With the Kenosha experience fresh in my mind and the hundreds of games I have attended, I had an expectation as I arrived in Joliet after fighting traffic, I didn’t think I would have a hard time finding parking, but all the lots were full, a very good sign!
There were lines to get in, as I picked up my Media Credentials at the ticket window, I got a sense things were disorganized, but I brushed it off as I walked up to the press area and looked out and saw the place was hopping.
I quickly set up my equipment since the game had already started, I put my recording device outside by a camera guy, I asked if it was okay, he was young like an intern, shrugged and said, “I think so”. I grabbed my camera rig to walk the stadium, but I noticed it was quiet in the press area, the PA announcer couldn’t be heard, and for that matter I couldn’t hear the crowd.
I first walked by the luxury boxes, they seemed quiet, then a concession area which seemed a little chaotic, being run by interns. I went down a stairway to the main concourse where most of the fans were, it was packed, I estimate 4000-4500 fans! What I found odd was the long lines, lots of kids, but it seemed really quiet to me for a ball game. That is when it hit me, the Slammers were not utilizing the beautiful scoreboard to engage the fans.
As I continued to walk towards the left field area, I noticed there was nothing for the kids to do; normally you would see games or a blow up slide and the mascot would be holding court. Absolutely, nothing! I walked the outfield and there was a handful of kids playing catch.
When I got to the right field area, I got a sense that it was a party deck at one time but on this night it seemed to be off limits and empty besides some young girls who were dressed up and their mothers taking pictures over looking the ball field which I found odd.
I was starting to question everything as I continued my walk, I popped into the team store, which seemed empty, there was shirts, hats and jerseys but it didn’t have all the knick knacks, I had another realization, hardly anyone had team jerseys or hats on besides the help and interns.
With the long lines for concessions I didn’t smell any hot dogs or burgers on the grill, no fresh popped popcorn, I wasn’t sure if soft serve ice cream was being served. So much confusion. This was a great little stadium, a little heavy on the 1990s decor but it had good sight lines.
I returned to the press area, which was still very quiet, two young guys were sitting there, I heard one say to the other that a friend or a cousin got called up to the NY Mets, I chirped in. I was just at the NY Mets game the week before, he showed me the kids name on the roster I had.
These two were interns, motivated college kids, I asked them what they did, they said something to the effect of taking tickets, I asked about the crowd. They said it was packed, Friday Night Fireworks, they thought.
I got up to get a burger and some popcorn, the concession area was still a little chaotic, I asked for a burger, it was terrible, it was like prison food, which made sense I guess, no fresh popcorn, only pre-popped.
I continued to talk with the interns, they were unpaid but got to come to the games for free. Things started making sense, I thought about the little girls and their moms on the party deck that were dressed up, I asked the interns, they said it was “Princess Night”. I was shocked, I had no idea!
This is when my frustration started, you have a “Princess Night” and no where for the fans to take pictures for social media? No fun “trellis of flowers” where the princesses’ could stand which overlooked the playing field to get their picture taken so they can post on Instagram!
Besides being a huge disappointment to the young fans that got dressed up; what a missed opportunity for the team, the fans posting at the game would draw future fans on other “Princess Nights”. My girlfriend asked if they gave little bats that the princess could use as wands…. What a great idea!
The Slammers have a great name, I thought they were doing a rebrand, since the team store didn’t have much merchandise, I asked an usher, he said they have had the name for 13 years. The more questions I asked the more frustration.
I don’t know the owner but I get the feeling he is a “baseball guy” that wanted to own a team. I looked around the press box and saw that it was people in their 30s on up that were keeping book, doing the public address, calling the game on the radio, etc… all good “baseball” people. I “think” there were interns doing the TV or internet broadcast.
A “baseball guy” is a person that is about the team and the product on the field, I love baseball, however at this level it is about entertaining the fans, only the “baseball” people care about the wins and losses, the fans care about the game at hand since the players change so frequently.
Fans want the merchandise, the unique name, the goofy games between innings, the scoreboard operator engaging them with “make noise”. The kids want the baseballs, the bouncy house and slide, pictures with the mascot.
With all the interns that want to learn and gain experience the Slammers need to engage them more, they have the ideas and motivation, let them take over the scoreboard so fans can be on it, the entertainment between innings, the theme nights, etc…. Interns want to learn and try different things, not just take the tickets.
Another thing, baseball is about marketing, the Slammers need a refresh, time to change the name to “Jail Birds” like your mascot; the one thing I really liked! Make the team uniforms prison guards or inmates, be the “bad boys of baseball”. Do an update to the stadium, post pictures of famous or notorious prisoners. Do something, your fans want an identity. I am sure the Slammers have done these things in the past, these aren’t original thoughts…
Baseball at this level is about the entertainment, you need to spend money to make money. You need new merchandise from season to season, time to trust in the young college kids to get you to the next level, reach out to the Kenosha Kingfish or ask your interns.
Baseball is a grind for all involved, a fun grind, so many little things you can do to create a great fan experience, if you rest on your laurels you will fail, Joliet Slammers you are failing your fans, time to change!
The Baseball Sentinel is about the fan experience, the sights, sounds, and the smells of being at a ball game, the entertainment doesn’t have to be polished it just needs to be engaging. This is my perspective regarding the Joliet Slammers, I am sure others feel differently, I would love to hear your baseball experiences.
I normally post the video I shot as I wander around the park along with audio on the Ballpark Confidential Podcast, unfortunately I didn’t have the microphone plugged in all the way on my recorder so I didn’t record anything, the video I am choosing not to put in the Sightseeing link.