Dave Burke has spent a quarter century selling minor league baseball from the Texas prairie to New York’s Hudson Valley and parts in between.
He signed on as sales director with the Mississippi Braves five years ago. Last year, he brought home attendance to 211,200 fans, averaging 3,152 tickets sold over 67 home dates.
That’s a level not seen since 2008, when the Double A club was in a third year of a honeymoon period.
It’s a middle-of-the-pack average for the Southern League “but if you want to compare population size to our attendance, we are near the top,” says Burke, who has also worked in sales for the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians minor league organizations.
Burke gets an assist this year from management’s decision to keep ticket prices the same as they were in the team’s inaugural 2005 season: $6 general admission, $8 field level and $12 home-plate level. The club has lowered group pricing this year; for instance, a group can buy a block of 500 tickets for $2 apiece.
Burke has the luxury of selling a spectator event that each time has a different ending, but the parent Atlanta Braves determine the product on the field, player development being the parent club’s main goal. The Braves’ off-season trading of stars such as sluggers Jason Heyward and Justin Upton and relief ace Craig Kimbrel dimmed their 2015 World Series hopes but provided a bunch of top prospects now on rosters in Mississippi and Triple A Gwinnet, longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports columnist Dave O’Brien says.
“The Braves’ upper-level minor league teams will be well-stocked for the first time in a while, and there are now plenty elite prospects bubbling just below the surface, ready to potentially contribute at the Major League level in the coming months and certainly in the coming years,” O’Brien wrote just before the big club’s opening day.
Though a six-hour drive from Atlanta, metro Jackson is still “Braves’ country,” Burke says, and adds that having the Braves Double A entry in Pearl helps to keep it that way.
The task of Burke and other marketing professionals on the Mississippi Braves’ payroll is to design family entertainment while keeping a focus on the different demographic groups the club wants to draw. “We always say: ‘Family fun, affordable entertainment.’ In doing promotions we try to hit all the certain demographics.”
Here is a sampling:
Friday night post-game fireworks, Fan Appreciation Saturdays (all tickets $6, free Fun Zone entry for kids, soft drinks and hotdogs $2, fireworks, live music for pre-game tailgating), Kids Run the Bases Sundays, Ladies Night Tuesday (free tickets for females until 8 p.m.), Winning Kid Wednesdays ( free admission to everyone 16 and under) and Thirsty Thursday ($2 beer and soft drinks).
“It’s just continuous marketing,” Burke says. “What we try to rely on is going after the families and groups.”
While many minor league teams do outlandish promotions to get fans in the stands — the Charleston River Dogs’ once attempted to set a lowest attendance record by locking out ticket buyers until the fifth inning – Burke resists the temptation to try the bizarre.
“From the Braves’ standpoint, you want to keep it fairly conservative,” he says. “Some places I’ve been the thinking has been, “The more bizarre the better.’ When I came here I was told to keep it tame.”
However, the Braves will offer some pandemonium later this year with a professional wrestling match at home plate.
Many of the promotions the Mississippi Braves do this year are designed to pay future benefits. “Not everything is geared to the single occasion,” Burke explains.
Think long-term, he says.
For example, the club is presenting three Kids Extravaganza games in which first pitch is at 11 a.m. in front of a stadium full of school children bused in for the game. “We’ll have 6,000 screaming kids. The atmosphere is electric. It is amazing,” Burke says. “A lot of them are her for the first time. We are planting a seed.”
And putting a new sales promotion person in living rooms across Central Mississippi.
Wives and mothers also occupy a prominent spot on the Braves’ radar, Burke says. They usually plan the family outings. If she thinks the ballpark is a fun place to be, that’s where the family will go, he says. “If you win mom’s heart, dad will come along.”
Adds Burke, “Even if you’re not a fan you are entertained for three hours. What other kind of entertainment can you come out for every night and have a different result?”
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