Thoughts and pictures of my local minor league baseball team the New York Penn League Connecticut Tigers; a Detriot farm team. We'll still be looking at former Navigators/Defenders players along the way....

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Joe Perez owns the Sunday Bulletin today...

with wall to wall CT Tigers coverage on the past and future seasons. Here's the main front page article wriiten by Joe. He also offers three side bar columns as well. Check it out via the link on the right.

"Norwich, Conn. — When the Connecticut Tigers officially moved into Dodd Stadium just longer than a year ago, the expectation was that the team would build off of the slow and steady success of its predecessors.

But the Tigers got off to a late start, after waiting for Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball to finish approving the move of the Class A team from Oneonta, N.Y., to Norwich. As a result, the team didn’t have a full marketing campaign, and the results showed.

The team, which had hoped to draw 100,000 fans, drew half that to its 36 games. Many youth sports leagues that annually sent their players to Dodd Stadium instead sent them to watch the New Britain Rock Cats. Skybox vacancies increased, and many advertisers either left or trimmed their support.

The team is now five weeks away from beginning its second season in Norwich. How well it executes its game plan will go far in determining the long-term viability of minor league baseball in southeastern Connecticut.

“There aren’t excuses any more,” Tigers General Manager Andrew Weber said. “We really want to see it grow, and we want to see it grow every year.”

City Stadium Authority Chairman Michael Jewell said the team did not fall short of its first-year expectations and praised its ownership and management group. He said if the Tigers match their ticket sales from a year ago, it wouldn’t be cause for concern despite the city’s vested interest. The first lease calls for $100,000 in rent this season and an additional $5,000 every other year.

“My impression is they’re doing well,” he said. “That’s the impression I get talking to the management up there; they’re doing well. These guys got it going on.”

The Tigers replaced the Connecticut Defenders as tenants in Dodd Stadium. The Double A Defenders, of the Eastern League, moved in 2009 to Richmond, Va. — a much larger market. The team slowly increased attendance after the New York Yankees ended its partnership with the franchise. In the Defenders’ last two seasons they topped the 200,000 mark. Still, by the standards of a full-season Double-A team, it was low.

They were replaced by the Tigers, who came from Oneonta, N.Y., and play in the New York-Penn League, a short-season, Single-A league composed mainly of players with four or fewer professional seasons.

Having a team that plays from late June into early September looked like a good fit because its entire season was played during the period of time when the Defenders, known for poor attendance in April and May, saw the most success.

“One positive we saw was an increase in attendance as the season went on,” said Weber, noting the comparison isn’t “exactly apples to apples.”

Weber said Connecticut is trying to model itself after the Tri-City Valley Cats, a fellow New York-Penn League team. Tri-City, like Connecticut, was a former Double-A market and during the last decade, saw growth in all but one year.

New York-Penn League President Ben Hayes did not return calls seeking comment.
Right now, there’s plenty of room for growth at Dodd Stadium.

Without going into specifics, Weber said the team has increased its season ticket base.
“I’d like to see us at at least 75,000 (fans),” Weber said. “Obviously, anything higher would be great.”

Group sales, which teams rely upon for big bumps in attendance, were all but nonexistent last year. Thirty to 40 groups have gone elsewhere — mostly to New Britain — in the last year. The Rock Cats are supportive of the Tigers and said they will lend a hand if they are ever called upon. They recognize that this season is critical in determining whether the market can sustain minor league baseball.

“This is such a big year for them,” said Bill Dowling, president and CEO of the Rock Cats. “That whole area down there has really suffered the last four, five years in terms of the baseball. And I think they had to really turn it around. ... This has to be the year, I think, where they get people to sit up and really take notice of the product off the field that really attracts people.”
On top of that, the stadium’s 14 skyboxes sit mostly vacant, with just three full-season tenants.
Glenn Carberry, partner with the New London law firm TCORS and a former partner in the Defenders ownership group, said his firm still holds season tickets, but reduced its presence among the skyboxes. TCORS held one full-season and a one-third season skybox plan. Now, it holds only a partial plan.

Carberry said the Tigers’ late start put the team behind the eight ball. Because the team was able to move in rather than keep the ballpark vacant for a summer is how 2010 should be judged.

“This will be an interesting year,” Carberry said. “Now that they get a full year and they do a good job up there, getting more publicity out, I think there should be improvements in terms of attendance. I really believe that. If there are not, then they’re not putting forth the proper effort. You should be able to draw a decent crowd up there for Single-A.”
Sponsorship money has been hard to come by. Some have yet to iron out details of packages. Some felt the money was best served going elsewhere.

Said Eastern Federal Bank President and CEO Jerry Coia: “As any small business, we have priorities where we spend our money, and as a local community bank, we would rather put it in local charities than advertising on a baseball field. Again, no offense against them. They are probably a great organization, but if I had a choice to make I’d rather support local charities at this point.”

For some, it was a numbers game. Stanton Equipment in Plainfield told The Bulletin a year ago that the change in level of baseball altered the company’s plans.

“Honestly, when it was a Double-A team, it drew a bigger crowd, and the advertising we did down there was quite a bit,” said Jim Benoit, a manager at Stanton Equipment.

Left with contact information of season ticket holders, sponsors and groups, the Tigers fell flat in their inaugural year in Norwich.

“It’s disappointing to see a lack of success when we had things moving in a direction I thought was positive,” former Defenders General Manager Charlie Dowd said. “As a matter of fact, it’s not difficult to see April and May baseball doesn’t work professionally in Norwich, Connecticut. There was some very positive signs going on.”

Between taking in less money than expected and not having much incoming revenue, the team finds itself in a hole — behind four months in utility bills totaling almost $26,000.

It’s a situation that was expected, Weber said, because those months are when the team isn’t generating revenue. Once the season begins, it will get caught up on that debt. Last season, the Tigers were behind on utilities in April, May and June and quickly had the debt paid.
10-year lease
The Tigers’ 10-year lease with the city of Norwich guarantees a team at Dodd Stadium through 2014. After that, the team can opt out of the lease with proper notice and an early termination fee of $700,000, which reduces after each additional season the team plays in Norwich.

“We’re committed to being here,” Weber said. “I know one of the concerns mentioned to me in the past has been, just in dealing with multiple different things, a lot of people with a year of ‘are they going or not going with the Defenders,’ and then us coming in, people aren’t sure if there’s going to be minor league baseball here. We’re 100 percent here.”

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said the thought “never entered my mind” that the struggles of last season could be repeated now that the Tigers had a full year to prepare for 2011. The key, he said, will be the community understanding its good fortune to be one of a few locations to have a minor league team.

“The town of Norwich has to understand how lucky we are that they’re here,” Nystrom said. “We have an opportunity to watch future major league prospects, like we did all the other years. The most important thing is there never was a lost season at that facility. People must not lose sight of that.”

Bulletin reporter James Craven contributed to this report."


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