Dennis Smith, the president of the Peninsula Oilers Board of Directors, was staffing a booth at the 19th annual Kenai Peninsula Sport, Recreation and Trade Show in late April at the Soldotna Sports Center when he received a shock.
"I had some families come up to me that asked, 'Oh, the Peninsula Oilers. What's that? We have baseball on the peninsula?'" Smith said.
Smith and the rest of the Oilers organization are looking to change that lack of notoriety this year.
When the season starts Thursday, the Oilers will have a promotion for every night, a new mascot and even more promotions between innings. The Oilers want the community more involved in the team.
Since the club started in 1974, the Oilers have been one of the top summer collegiate baseball programs in the country. The Oilers won National Baseball Congress World Series titles in 1977, 1993 and 1994.
Despite offering quality baseball, the Oilers have never had the seats at the ballpark brimming consistently with fans.
"It's had the feel of a private ballclub at times," Smith said. "This is Peninsula Oilers baseball, and peninsula is a key word. The community should know about it and share in the team's success and failure."
When baseball operations manager Mike Baxter resigned after nine years on the job in September 2003, the Oilers board decided to make fans more of a focus of Oilers baseball.
The first step in doing that was hiring Ron Lucia as the general manager early in 2004. Lucia brings a business background to the team. Before signing on as the Oilers' general manager, he owned three businesses, as well as a baseball team in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
Smith said the Oilers have added staff in order to free up Lucia's time to focus more on the business end of baseball.
Baxter was a one-man band for the Oilers, doing organizational tasks, driving the team bus and even selling programs in the stands.
"He was doing as much as he could just to do the basics," Smith said. "We all recognize his workload was tremendous."
Lucia, on the other hand, has people like assistant general manager Bill Schindler to help him out with those basics.
One of Lucia's priorities has been to increase the club's sponsorship base. The Oilers depend heavily on bingo and pull-tabs to finance their operations.
Lucia said the Oilers need to find other ways of creating revenue in case the Legislature decides to increase taxes on charitable gaming.
"With the new legislation seemingly consistently bandied about in Juneau (regarding charitable gaming taxes), it would be wise to try and increase sponsorship," Lucia said.
Lucia said sponsorship has increased 40 percent this year, but he declined to give a dollar amount for the increased sponsorship or say what percent of the Oilers budget comes from gaming.
According to Lucia, increasing sponsorship has dovetailed nicely with increasing the visibility of the Oilers in the community.
One of the first things Lucia did was strike a deal with GCI, KSRM and the Peninsula Clarion for television, radio and print ads.
Lucia said these deals meant he could go looking for sponsors with the promise of media exposure. The ads also put the Oilers more consistently in the public eye.
"There are many choices here on the peninsula," Lucia said. "We need to be in front of people and remind them what's going on all the time."
With the promise of media exposure, Lucia was able to line up a long list of sponsors to completely fill the Oilers' home schedule with promotions, from free seat cushions to nights featuring reduced prices on chicken wings and beer.
Last year, the Oilers had promotions for 11 of their 25 home dates.
There also will be promotions during the game this year, such as the opportunity for a fan to throw three balls through a cut-out in a board and win $5,000.
"That's our focus the fan experience," Lucia said. "Great sponsors allow us to focus on the fans a lot more."
In the modern world, great baseball is not enough for the fans, Lucia said.
"You can't just sell baseball anymore," Lucia said. "It's a slow-paced game. It's hard to keep a kid's attention for 2 1/2 or three hours."
In addition to the promotions, Lucia also made changes like creating a mascot and forging a new partnership with KSRM.
Cherie Curry, the general manager of KSRM, said the Oilers used to buy airtime and contact their own advertisers. This year, there will be a relationship between the Oilers and KSRM where Oilers games are broadcast just like high school football, hockey and basketball.
"We've got a lot of sponsorship coming in from people already comfortable advertising in sports," Curry said.
Dan Gensel will broadcast the games, with Steve Holloway occasionally filling in and Bob Bird providing color broadcasting.
KSRM also will kick off the promotional schedule by giving out CheerStix to the first 100 fans Thursday.
"Ron is really great," Curry said. "He's all about marketing. That's what's great."
Despite the change in focus that Lucia has implemented, few expect things to change for the Oilers overnight.
"I don't think there's going to be a lot of radical changes," Smith said. "It's evolving. We'll learn things the first homestand that we'll modify for the next homestand.
"I'd like to think we're on track so that when people pay admission, they're not only getting baseball, they're getting family fun."
2004 Oilers Promotional Schedule
June 10 KSRM CheerStix to first 100 fans
June 11 Pepsi seat cushion to first 100 fans
June 13 GCI Little League Day
June 14 Pizza Boys all you can eat/drink w/ admission
June 15 Unocal mini-bats to first 100 fans (76-cent admission)
June 16 Country Foots 2/$1 hot dogs
June 17 Coors/Tyson $1 drafts/25 cent wings
June 18 Peninsula Clarion free night
June 27 Great Bear Ford kids day (12 and under get in free)
June 28 Pizza Boys all you can eat/drink w/ admission
June 29 Unocal mini-bats to first 100 fans (76-cent admission)
June 30 Country Foots 2/$1 hot dogs
July 1 Coors/Tyson $1 drafts/25 cent wings
July 4 Era Aviation mini-flag giveaway
July 5 Pizza Boys all you can eat/drink w/ admission
July 9 Pepsi logo baseball to first 100 fans
July 10 GCI free night
July 11 Pepsi T-shirt to first 100 fans
July 20 Unocal mini-bats to first 100 fans (76-cent admission)
July 21 Country Foots 2/$1 hot dogs
July 22 Coors/Tyson $1 drafts/25 cent wings
July 23 KeyBank free night
July 24 Air Force giveaway
July 31 Oilers Booster Club free night
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