Capital Gains

By JOE McFARLAND

While it might not be exactly what they were hoping for, it’s a start for Jordan Blundell and the Edmonton Prospects.

After a few months of speculation about another potential baseball tenant for RE/MAX Field in the capital and questions about what would happen to the Prospects, the club announced in late-November that they would be back for the 2020 season.

It isn’t the long-term lease that the Prospects were hoping for, but the team’s head coach and assistant general manager sees it as an opportunity to grow upon a solid base they have built in the last few years.

The announcement also gives some clarity for the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), who hosted its first-ever All-Star Game in Edmonton last summer, and puts the wraps on an interesting off-season, which also included the unveiling of expansion plans in Sylvan Lake as well as a change in the ownership structure in Brooks.

We sat down with Blundell for Episode #70 of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast to get the latest on the situation and what’s coming down the pipe heading into the new year.

Q: How does it feel to finally have some certainty around the future of the organization, at least for 2020?

A: Well, it’s a relief for sure. In the fall, there was a lot of frustration and trepidation about what we can and can’t go ahead and do and work towards. I guess, summing it up, it was frustrating for sure from our side.

With respect to the City of Edmonton, we understand and always understood what their needs are and how they work through their process of what they need out of RE/MAX Field. We’ve always viewed it as a partnership and the good people that we work with at the city view it as such as well. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to hammer out the ten-year lease that was mandated by city council to approach ten years at RE/MAX Field.

The city is looking at redeveloping or developing different parts of the River Crossing. It’s located right in the river valley right at RE/MAX Field in Riverdale, just after that beautiful bridge in Edmonton. They’re looking at doing some really creative things down there to attract more people to the river valley.

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RE/MAX Field was, at one point, not potentially part of those plans and a couple of years ago we had a campaign of “RE/MAX Field: The Crown Jewel of the River Valley” and we put a lot of effort behind the idea of saving the ballpark long-term for the City of Edmonton and the fans of our program and baseball fans in general in this area. We viewed that as successful because the city then put out its master plan for the River Crossing and the four options included RE/MAX Field. So we viewed that as a success that the work that we had done to that point had worked.

City council mandated a ten-year lease to be negotiated and we worked through that process with the city. There was another group involved that we were never really made aware of what their plans were and that’s where we get to that frustrating part.

Thankfully, we’re a go for 2020 and that’s been the case here for a few months now. I think it was mid-November when we were able to sign that deal. There was a little bit of confusion from what we had announced and the timing of it and what the city was comfortable to getting something signed, which was kind of out of our hands, unfortunately. We’re a go for 2020 and we’re super excited.

We have goals, dreams and aspirations for RE/MAX Field. We feel like we’re stewards of the sport of baseball in the City of Edmonton and we feel we provide a great product and a great atmosphere for baseball fans in the city to come down to the river valley to the best patio in the city. Everyone knows what patio season is all about with the limited amount of time we have to enjoy the sun in the summer. We feel like we have the best patio in the city and we have entertainment going on for you to enjoy that big patio. We’re looking forward to 2020, no doubt, Joe.

Q: Do you approach this year as a bit of an opportunity to prove your point so that you can nail down that long-term deal?

A: Yeah, good point. I think we’ve approached every year exactly in that fashion. We don’t take for granted the privilege it is to play at RE/MAX Field. The ability to use that facility with the history and be in that home clubhouse. You know, some big-time names were in there. That’s a privilege for us and we appreciate that.

We’re hopeful to have a long-term lease signed before we even get to first pitch. Now, that’s potentially wishful thinking from our end. It’s not up to us on the date and timing of that, but that’s what we’re working towards. That won’t change how we approach our season.

Every game, every day we’re in there engaging with our fans as an opportunity for us to establish a connection that’s a long-term one with current fans meeting future fans and that growth can be exponential. You get a 22-year-old into the ballpark a couple of years ago when we first got into RE/MAX Field who is now 26, 27 or 28, they’re maybe starting a family. And then in a couple of years, their kids are playing baseball and that’s where we see the exponential growth and the opportunity to now engage who was once a young professional now turning into a young family. That went from one fan to a family of four fans and then it grows and that’s how we view that.

As for what our plans are for this year, we have big plans. We got a little bit of a late start compared to years previous as we didn’t know what our future was until mid-to-late November. We want to push fan attendance up over 70,000. It’s steadily grown. Our attendance increased last year, on average, a slight amount. We broke 2,000 per game two years ago and we were just above that this past year.

We feel like with the way the weather was, we missed out on a lot of opportunity and obviously we’ll deal with weather again but our goal is to push over 70,000. We’re already over that low 60,000 right now and we think with the hard work we’re willing to put in and the ideas and creativity we have in our front office, we can achieve that goal. So that’s where we’re putting the bar this year.

Q: And I couldn’t help but notice that within the first few days of announcing that you’ll be back in 2020, there were some different ideas and partnerships being announced, like working with other organizations like the Stingers and others.

A: Yeah, great point. We were super-excited to partner with the Stingers, FC Edmonton and the Edmonton Eskimos and offer a ticket package of four tickets for $79 that gave you the ability to check out any of the teams, all the sports included. It gave us an opportunity to cross-promote and maybe have football fans that aren’t so familiar with baseball to become a little more aware of our program and vice versa for basketball, football and soccer. The quartet of teams being able to come together and hammer out that idea and bring it to fruition, that we viewed as a cool thing. This is an opportunity for us to team up with other teams and organizations in the City of Edmonton.

A lot of credit needs to go to Ryan Jagoe. He’s our director of sales and tickets and promotions and corporate sponsorship. He did some great work there and likewise with the other three organizations involved. They put together something that we could use as a group of teams and get out there into the public. It’s a battle for entertainment dollars with movies and camping and other sports and everything else people have the ability to spend their hard-earned money at.

This is an opportunity for us to get into their minds, right around the Christmas season, that baseball season is right around the corner and we’d love to have you down at RE/MAX Field to enjoy our product. We feel confident that if it is your first time coming down to the field, you’ll come back. We’re that confident in our product. Maybe you’re not a season ticket holder and maybe you only come back once or twice more, but that’s the point.

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We don’t need every one of our fans to be die-hard 28 games in a row. We’d love that and we do have fans that are like that. But just to even expose a family and kids to the sport of baseball is ultimately our goal. So it’s a really cool ticket package that we were able to get done.

Q: Another thing that likely contributes to excitement around the park is the parity around the league. Every game is competitive and allows for some more rivalries to be built.

A: For sure. And you know what? That’s really important for the sport in Western Canada and the Prairies. I think that our league has the ability to inspire youth players to work towards achieving a goal, which is to play for one of the teams in the WCBL. It’s another stepping stone on the way up the sport of baseball’s ladder. There’s been a countless number of guys who have made it to affiliated pro baseball, independent pro baseball from our league.

It provides players that come to play in the WCBL an opportunity to experience what pro baseball is like. By that, I mean that 7:05pm start with the anthem, the fans, peanuts and popcorn and beer and hot dogs and all that is pro baseball. When you’re a kid, and this was the case for me when I was 12, walking into RE/MAX Field was eye-opening. Jaw-dropping is maybe too big of a word but to walk into that facility and then walk through the concourse, see the ballpark and see the sport played and displayed at that level is something that I’ve never forgotten.

It’s a privilege for me to be able to be inside the clubhouse and dugout now and look up into the crowd and see a 10-year-old wearing a Prospects hat and cheering for our guys and catching foul balls and coming out to support us.

That bodes well for the opportunity for that young player, boy or girl, to end up getting to the college level and playing in our league. So, the league’s significance in Western Canada is almost understated to have that level and calibre of baseball in your community. It just brings up the level from the grassroots and our goal as an organization is to be really involved with the grassroots. I know multiple teams fairly well and their front offices and they have the same mindset as well.

So the more we’re able to, as a league, continue to spur development at the youngest levels, it brings fans and brings up the level of baseball. And hopefully it brings more local players to our rosters. We’re not full of Edmontonian players but we’d love to be and we have the opportunity to continue to grow that. Ultimately, how big that would be if all of our rosters didn’t have imports, it’s all Canadian and it’s all local.

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That would be the dream. I don’t think that’s realistic and I think it’s good to bring in players from outside our community to experience what this is and to bring in the different attitudes and flavours. Baseball gets played a little differently all over North America. California is a little different than Florida and Texas and New York. It’s good to get a mixture of players and try to build towards a common goal with a bunch of strangers, almost. That’s the fun part of managing a ball club.

Q: Speaking of that aspect of things, with the business side in the rearview mirror, you can now focus on the on-field product and making sure you’re getting butts in the seats. How excited are you to move on to the “fun stuff”?

A: You’re right and it’s not like we weren’t doing that behind the scenes but without knowing for sure, we were limited as to how much we could explore partnerships and marketing ideas. However, we did kick some ideas around and you’re right, now we’re at the point where we can really get after it, full go. We’re excited about building towards that 70,000 fans through the turnstiles this year.

We’ve earmarked a few games that we really want to highlight for our fans and try to push the attendance up for those specific games. Not that we’re going to ignore other games on our schedule, but Opening Day last year was special. Minor Baseball Day has been special for us the last couple of years. Father’s Day Sunday game has been awesome for us. Canada Day, obviously, if you’re unaware that game is a special game and just a special event in Canada.

Then we look at the All-Star Game – which we’re hosting again on July 18th and 19th  – we have some cool ideas for a Saturday home run derby and fan fest and then the Sunday game. Then you look at the fan appreciation game at the end of the summer, so we look at five or six games where we really want to focus on attracting as many fans as we can. The buzz that is created by more bodies in the seats is just special. Like, we talked off-air for a little bit about what Opening Day was for us last year. It had that buzz with 3,000-plus, there was a murmur and buzz that lasted the whole game. And if you were at that game, you’ll remember that game and you probably came to another game in hopes that the energy was there again. It’s unrealistic to carry that energy through the whole year but we have some real specific games that are super-cool to be at, where the attendance is really big and we’re going to work really hard to grow those.

 

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