When the Tacoma Rainiers take the field at Cheney Stadium this evening, it will be the continuation of a long history of minor league baseball in the South Sound.
The team has played at Cheney Stadium for nearly 50 years, and has enjoyed local ownership for most of its history. In 2006, however, Dallas, Tex.-based Schlegel Sports announced it would purchase the Rainiers. Most fans will say it was a good move because it was the first time in awhile that an ownership group made some solid investments in the team. A staff of nearly three-dozen have been busy this off-season, working out of a University Place office, raising its visibility to South Sound baseball fans, and aggressively lining up corporate sponsorship. To that end, the team recently announced a five-year sponsorship deal with Venture Bank for its Gold Club area.
For team president Aaron Artman, 2008 will be his first full-season since he was hired last June. Artman, 32, is familiar to sports business. He worked for six years as the sales and marketing director at Mandalay Baseball Properties. After a brief hiatus from the industry (he worked as an executive at Microsoft Corp.), he returned to sports.
“I just had an itch to get back into sports,” said Artman during an interview this week. “I also knew the Schlegel family. When they bought a team in the Pacific Northwest, it was an opportunity to stay. It was an opportunity and a challenge — trying to improve the product and turn it around. I love it. I’m having a blast.”
On Tuesday, the Rainiers hosted an open house for local media. The Index met Artman to discuss the upcoming season.
TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Let’s talk about Cheney Stadium. It’s a 48-year-old stadium. What kind of challenge does it present in running the team’s business operations?
AARON ARTMAN: You know, a lot of sweat equity has to go into it to make it nice and clean, fresh coats of paint, and all that. That’s a challenge, just from the maintenance perspective. The good news is that we have a belief — we don’t think of it as this old park that we don’t pay attention to. We think of it as a great venue, an historic venue, and we want to make it shine and make it nice just like we would with any park. So we take great pride at the maintenance level. From a business perspective, there are some challenging areas. It would be great to have suites or something like that. There’s a demand for that in the South Sound, and people have asked for it. We would love to have a video board to entertain the fans. It’s kind of a challenge. But it is what it is.
INDEX: Hasn’t there been a trend with other minor league parks to build new stadiums?
ARTMAN: Yes. There was a huge boom, which started in the mid-1990s with minor league ballparks. The model is really to go out and build first-class venues that are every bit as nice as major league stadiums. You do all the things you do in those areas with suites, video boards, beautiful concourses, parking, and everything like that. The challenges at Cheney Stadium are not so much once you are in the seating bowl, but in the concourse. It’s limited in the amount of rest rooms and points-of-sale you have for concessions. So when you do work your tail off to get a great crowd out here and the team becomes more and more popular, there are some setbacks there with long lines. It’s not built in the new mode where, similar to a park like Safeco, where when you are at the concession stand you can still see the game. That’s what we hope to get — a feel like that if and when we do some renovations on the park.
INDEX: Where does it stand now? The City of Tacoma owns the stadium, and the team signed a lease with the City, correct?
ARTMAN: Yes. What we’re doing right now is working with the City, Pierce County, and the State of Washington, as well as some other entities, such as Metro Parks and even the school district to some degree, to try and figure out how we can do a major renovation to Cheney Stadium, but also keep some of the aspects of it, which are just great. But basically give it a modern-day feel — rebuild the concourse, add in suites, re-do the outfield wall. We’re in pretty serious discussions right now, trying to figure that out, and everyone is headed in the right direction. It’s a matter of if and when. The target date is 2010.
INDEX: In listening to general manager Daren Brown earlier today, his goal seemed to be getting the players ready for the Mariners should the team need players. How do you run the Rainiers in the shadow of the Mariners?
ARTMAN: The good thing is that on the players side, the Mariners handle all of it. We really run it from a business perspective. We want to make sure the players are taken care of and handle all their needs. But we don’t have a say in when a guy gets called up. That said, the Mariners aren’t involved on the business side. We have full autonomy when it comes to ticket sales, corporate partnerships, management, and the fan experience. It’s not really being in the shadow. It’s two separate entities, but with a common thing. The other cool thing is that minor league baseball is — it’s funny because I’ve been with teams that have won titles in the minor leagues, and I’ve been with teams that had the worst record in the league. Attendance doesn’t really change either way. It’s more about the experience. So you don’t worry as much about whether a player is going to get called up or whether the team is going to go on a losing streak — which, of course, we want to win like everyone else does — but people come out here more for the experience, and to have a good time.
INDEX: But does it present a challenge in the sense that someone might say, “I could just go 35 miles north and catch a Mariners game instead of a Rainiers game?”
ARTMAN: Not really. We know people do that. And God bless them, they should. The Mariners offer an awesome experience, and Safeco is great. That said, there are enough people in the South Sound who come to our games and have a good time. We don’t think of it in any way, shape, or form as competition. It’s a very similar situation when I was in Texas. We had a Double-A team that was 30 miles north of the Texas Rangers, and we were the Rangers affiliate. Same thing. I think it’s a big enough area here. I know where we’re pulling from. It’s Tacoma, Puyallup, over on the Peninsula, and as far south as Olympia, and as far north as Federal Way.
INDEX: In other towns, Triple-A baseball is the only game in town. In the Puget Sound region, there are a lot of things out there competing for the entertainment dollar. How do you set the Rainiers apart?
ARTMAN: Two ways. One, just from a family entertainment experience. I don’t think there’s anything better than coming out to a minor league baseball game. We try to make sure we create one of the best experiences anywhere for any sport. There’s a level of uniqueness coming out to a minor league game that you don’t get even going to the big leagues. It’s more affordable, there’s more entertainment. That’s one of the ways we set ourselves apart. The second way is more on the business side, with things like the Gold Club and party decks. We found, right when we got here, there were a ton of businesses down here that wanted to do business entertainment, and didn’t want to drive all the way to Seattle to do it. We have a unique offering there. Other than that, there’s a ton of competition. I mean, even when it’s sunny — people are on their boats, working in their yards, going to movie theaters. We want to make sure it’s unique, fun, and wholesome to a degree, and see where the cards fall.
INDEX: Minor league baseball has earned the reputation of being real crazy.
INDEX: The Rainiers seem to steer away from that. Why is that?
ARTMAN: We steer away from that. We try not to do ‘stunts,’ if you will. Just from a fan perspective, we build our reputation on family entertainment. Even on the corporate level, they still bring their families out. We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize all the equity we have built up in that area. The second thing is that we don’t really do a lot of walk-up gimmick promotions or give-aways because people might only come that one time, when there’s a give-away. We try to have a good balance. We still love baseball. I think last year we kind of over-entertained at times. We were trying to do too many skits on the field. The feedback we got was just to tone it down a little bit, and we’re taking it to heart. But, yes, there are some teams that do some crazy stuff. I’ve heard a lot of stories. It just depends on what philosophy you have. We believe the best way to grow our fan base is through groups and season tickets. Other teams believe the best way to do it is to work on the walk-up sales, so you do promotions to get the walk-up crowd. But I just always found it really tough to predict walk-up no matter what you do. We would rather rely on something where we have a sales force out there and build a relationship.
INDEX: The season starts this week. What are your benchmark goals?
ARTMAN: We want to increase attendance by 10 to 15 percent. That’s one of our goals. We would love to get to double-digit sell-outs. You kind of build these things slow. We’re focus on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I think attendance is the main gauge.
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For more information about the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, visit http://www.tacomarainiers.com