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Mississippi Braves Trustmark Park on opening night in 2018.

M-Braves, Shuckers plan rousing comebacks in spring

Biloxi Shucker General Manager Hunter Reed

» Teams use layoff to create new fan enticements, keep up brand visibility

By TED CARTER

Expectations of their teams making grand returns to the field in April have replaced the despair of a 2020 season lost to the coronavirus pandemic, say executives of the Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers of the Double A Southern League.

The clubs will devote the months in which their teams would otherwise be on the field to putting talents to work on crowd-pleasing promotions and events for a-hoped-for 2021 season. With pent-up fan demand for live baseball, the teams expect rollicking receptions on their return to Trustmark Park in Pearl and MGM Park in Biloxi, respectively, the club executives say.

“While we would never choose this script, a silver lining is that we now have a big head start on the new features we will be presenting to fans in 2021,” said Pete Laven, a 30-year veteran of minor league front office work who joined the Mississippi Braves as vice president and general manager in 2018.

» READ MORE: Communities lose their summer ‘front porches’ with cancelled minor league season

“We can’t wait to unveil brand new promotional events, premium giveaways, unique culinary offerings as well as a remodeled Farm Bureau Grill in right field,” added Laven, who reports to club owner Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.

In Biloxi, Hunter Reed envisions the Shuckers’ opening day in April as a “tremendous occasion.”

Mississippi Braves General Manager Pete Laven

“As hard as we worked to make 2020 and every season great, there is no denying how special next season will be,” said Reed, general manager of the Double A Milwaukee Brewers affiliate.

“Rest assured, we are working hard every day to make that happen,” he added.

Keeping up their profiles and brands in their markets is a must for the Mississippi clubs’ hopes for making their returns much-anticipated events, Laven and Reed said in emails.

“How our brand stays front-and-center is ever-changing with the times,” Reed said. “But the constant is we want Coastal Mississippi and the surrounding areas to know we are here to stay.”

Tee Off or Slug a Homer

Why let all that well-groomed green grass inside MGM Park go to waste at summer’s midpoint? the Shuckers front office staffers asked themselves in deciding to convert the playing field into a 9-hole golf course, calling it the Golf Experience at Schooner’s Landing. 

Visitors didn’t even need to golf. They could come and just take swings, with tee times set on the half hour mornings through mid-afternoon.  

The special golfing “experience” is over for now but those sort of multi-uses for the Biloxi park and other minor league venues around the country reflect a resourcefulness that could be crucial for making it to Opening Day 2021. Non-baseball events, such as 5K runs and craft beer festivals, are a year-round priority for stadium owners. But without games for a season, filling calendar spots is more important than ever, both financially and for maintaining a high profile for the stadium and team. 

Take the M-Braves’ Father’s Day Batting Practice event, for instance. It brought fans into Trustmark Park and generated a lot of buzz when one dad, partial leg-amputee Jeremy Williams, homered over the left field wall, the only father to go yard. Williams had lost a part of his left leg in a train accident at age 11.

On the Fourth of July weekend, a massive crowd turned out for an annual fireworks show put on by the City of Pearl and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi. Organizers allowed a limited number of fans into Trustmark Park while most watched the show from their autos in the stadium parking lot. 

The ballpark will also feature three on-field high school graduations in July.

“While not ideal circumstances, the cancellation of the current season opens up a lot of dates on the summer calendar for our staff to collaborate on ways to book events while observing state and local covid-19 regulations,” Laven, the GM, said.

Beyond stadium events, the Shuckers and M-Braves use social media to remind fans to not forget about baseball. “It’s a lifeline to our loyal supporters,” Laven noted, detailing the efforts of communications chief Chris Harris, who is also the team’s radio voice. 

Harris, Laven said, “has done a phenomenal job of engaging fans with creative content such as at-home reading programs for school kids, Quarantine Q&As with current and past M-Braves players as well as Sponsor Spotlights featuring our current partners and their efforts in the community during this extraordinary time.”

The M-Braves are also using a ballpark mainstay – hot dogs – to generate goodwill, Laven said. With the Hot Dog Happy Hours, he added, club staff delivers ballpark hot dogs to health care workers at local hospitals.

The Shuckers established Shucker Nation before the 2019 season to raise and maintain the team’s brand year-round. The Shuckers are building on that with efforts led by Sales & Marketing Coordinator Dustin Fishman, GM Reed said. “The constant is we want Coastal Mississippi and the surrounding areas to know we are here to stay.”

Fiscal Shortfalls

In the back-and-forth that led to building MGM Park, negotiations ended with the Shuckers agreeing to pay the City of Biloxi a base annual rent of $150,000 and percentages of the gate projected at about $200,000 annually. Those payments are short of the $1.5 million or so yearly that Biloxi pays on stadium debt and lease payments to MGM Resorts for the land on which the stadium sits, according to Vincent Creel, Biloxi’s public affairs manager. 

Biloxi borrowed $21 million for its contribution to building MGM Park, while the state covered the remainder of the $36 million total with recovery funds from the 2010 BP gulf oil spill.

The debt distress level is far less in Pearl. The City does not own Trustmark Park and resort taxes and sales tax allocations that cover stadium debt are up about $600,000 over last year, according to Pearl Mayor Jake Windham.

That surplus comes from sales from Bass Pro Shops, shopping plazas and hotel properties that are neighbors to the stadium just off Interstate 20. But the picture is bleaker for businesses in Biloxi expecting baseball to liven up downtown.

“We’ll that ain’t going to happen” this year, Creel said.

 “It has been catastrophic for them as well.”

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About Ted Carter