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Major Attraction: Inside Minor League Promotions

by Tom Ando
July 19, 2019 - International League (IL) - Durham Bulls

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, rehabbing with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, signs autographs in Durham
Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, rehabbing with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, signs autographs in Durham
(Durham Bulls, Credit: Durham Bulls)

Bull Rush: Inside a Record Breaking Weekend

By Tom Ando

It happens all the time in Minor League Baseball: rehab assignments - big league players recovering from injury using a few games in the minors before returning to action in the show. The bigger the name, the greater the opportunity for teams to capitalize, but what actually goes into a weekend when two of the biggest names, and men, in the sport are dropped on your doorstep with just a few days notice? The Durham Bulls are more than happy to tell you about the weekend of June 14th to June 16th at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

It started on Sunday, June 9th when rumors began that New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton would be rehabbing a couple of games with the Class A Tampa Tarpons before joining the team's Triple-A affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders on the road.

"We're looking at the schedule going 'OK, well that's us', so we saw an increase in tickets early in the week: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," said Peter Wallace, the Bulls Director of Ticketing.

On Wednesday, however, everything changed. Not only would Stanton be coming, but it was likely that another Yankee power, and one of the game's most popular players, Aaron Judge, would be as well. On Thursday, the Bulls received confirmation that both would be there for the three game series beginning Friday, June 14th.

"That's when it went from being 'Hey, this is going to be a great baseball game' to 'This is now an event' and that mentality shifts. After we tweeted out the confirmation, our online sales in just forty minutes went through the roof," said Wallace. "At that point, we had only had some standing room only seats left, but people didn't mind. They just wanted to be here. I think we had more All-Stars on the field Friday, Saturday and Sunday than some Major League games. Once you flip that switch to an event, from a ticketing perspective, it becomes easier to manage because you don't have the inventory problems. When it's a sellout, it's just a matter of monitoring inventory and opening up what you can and it becomes an awareness campaign. 'Where can people go for standing room only? What areas of the ballpark can they be in?' So it's an informational campaign."

While becoming more of an event may be easier to manage from a ticketing standpoint, the more bodies that walk through the turnstiles means more mouths to feed.

"There was an email to all of my staff that said 'We've got major rehabs coming here. Alert. Be Ready,'" laughed Dave Levey, Director of Food and Beverage.

"The first and foremost challenge, right off the bat, was to make sure we had the staff. We were expecting it to be a busy weekend as it was. Last year on that weekend, we had pretty good numbers and it was against Scranton, and there's a lot of people that have moved down here from the New England and New York area, so we always expect to get good crowds when Pawtucket or Scranton come in, so we knew we were lined up to have a decent weekend and then suddenly, 'Boom,' we were that much busier. I think the phrase to my concessions manager was 'Having 20 extra people will not be extra people, so schedule even more.' So that's what we did."

Levey, in his fifth season with the team, supplements staffing not only with Non Profit Organizations, but with local staffing agencies as well, one of which was brought into the fold at the last minute.

"We on boarded a third staffing agency pretty darn quick," said Levey. "It went from us talking to them a week before to making sure they're sending us 15-20 workers that Friday. They went from making sales calls to potentially helping us out to being brought on board. It was good having them in the on-deck circle as it was; we just got them in that much quicker."

Getting staff in place was only that much more important when the team decided to open gates early for fans to see the Yankees All-Stars take batting practice. While one might think it could lead to more chaos, it proved beneficial at the gates through the weekend.

"It actually helped with the flow of people coming into the event with no major lines at the gates to get in," said Wallace. "That allowed us to really control the flow of traffic and make it an enjoyable event for everybody because then you don't have people running in to get to the dugouts or wherever. It was very calm and people who wanted to get here early did and people who just wanted to get here whenever they did, it was just like a normal crowd."

Fans came from far and wide as well. Of the record breaking 35,052 in attendance over the three-day weekend, fans from 43 different states, a few from Canada and even one from Australia purchased tickets.

Wherever they came from, they ate. The team reported sales of over 1,000 pounds of Bright Leaf hot dogs, 3,200 gallons of beer and 2,700 gallons of soda and water. Handling such demand in a minor league park is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. After Friday's crowd of 11,283, Levey called the team's concessions manager on his way in to work Saturday morning.

"He said, 'I'm almost back to the ballpark,' and I said, 'What do you mean back?' and he said, 'Well I've got thirty cases of fries in the back of my truck.'"

"I found out that they were here until 2AM on Friday going through the building, checking all of the stock levels, basically seeing how much we sold on Friday night," said Levey. "So he only told me they grabbed thirty cases of fries, but when I saw the invoice go by my desk for approval, they actually grabbed about 80 cases of different product in addition to the truck from US Foods that was already pre-ordered to come in Saturday."

And they sure needed it as Saturday's crowd was the best in franchise history at 12,000. While Friday was the biggest night in food and beverage sales since Levey has been with the team, Saturday smashed that record as well, followed by a Sunday that became the third busiest.

"My favorite saying was, 'We passed that sign, got off on the highway and didn't even see that benchmark in the rearview mirror,'" said Levey.

Breaking attendance and sales records is always great, but to all involved it was the atmosphere that set the weekend apart.

"I was telling people I've worked in sports since 2000, across baseball and soccer mainly and have done everything from ticketing a women's World Cup, ticketed a papal mass when I worked for the Washington Nationals, this is, for me personally top five of the events I've done," said Wallace.

"From the way the crowd reacted; some of the biggest cheers Aaron Judge received... I happened to be watching, the batter hit a foul ball off of the screen, and Judge walked over and picked the ball up from the batter's circle and gave it to a little kid. People went bananas over it. Meanwhile, we got Brendan McKay on the mound pitching and they're not even paying attention. They were so fixated on him and just how cool he was to our fans was just amazing to be able to give our fans the opportunity to engage with these All-Stars. It was super special. I keep tickets of all of the special ones, and these are three that I'm keeping."

It's certainly a weekend fans will be talking about for years to come, as much a part of Durham lore as Nuke LaLoosh.

About Tom Ando:

Tom works in Food & Beverage in the Sports Hospitality business. He enjoys the whacky and fan friendly ideas that Minor League Baseball is known for. In 2018, as Director of Food & Beverage for the Erie SeaWolves, Tom created the Cotton Candy Hot Dog that went viral and became the only known Minor League Baseball food item to ever be talked about in Tonight Show opening monologue.

Images from this story

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, rehabbing with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, signs autographs in Durham
Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, rehabbing with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, signs autographs in Durham

(Durham Bulls)

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