Minor league baseball team recruiting Christians to ballpark

Posted: Friday, June 20, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Minor league baseball players warmed up before a recent Nashville Sounds game to the salacious song ''Girls, Girls, Girls'' by Motley Crue.

But over at the concession area, a different tune was playing a trio called Common Bond was crooning, ''Here I am Lord, a vessel to be used. I'll go where You lead me. I'll do anything for You.''

With heavy competition for the sports dollar, Nashville's Class AAA team is trying to lure more Christians into the stands in this city some call the buckle of the Bible Belt.

The team is staging five ''Faith Nights'' this season, offering church groups a game, a concert by a contemporary Christian act, fireworks, a hot dog and soft drink for as little as $10. It's a contrast in marketing for a team that also attracts the party crowd with a cheap beer night called ''Thirsty Thursdays.''

''These are blatantly Christian nights,'' said Brent High, a Sounds program manager who was brought in this season specifically to attract more youth and church groups. ''It's a very new idea, but it's been wonderfully received by the area churches.''

The first faith night attracted about 4,500 fans, still less than half-full at the Sounds' Greer Stadium but a 40 percent increase from the same night last season.

High said other minor-league teams have staged church-oriented promotions such as Baptist Night and Lutheran Night but he's not aware of any that have put on a full-fledged Christian concert series. At least one other team in Washington state has called him asking about it.

Jim Ferguson, spokesman for St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Minor League Baseball, also didn't know whether other teams had tried the promotion, but believes the idea merges nicely with one of the biggest selling points of the franchises.

''It's very friendly from a financial standpoint,'' Ferguson said. ''A family of four can come to the average minor league ballpark and spend $40 or less for tickets, hot dogs, drinks, parking and a program.''

Minor league baseball peaked in 1949, when 448 teams in 59 leagues drew 39.8 million people to the parks. The second-best year was last season, when just 176 teams in 15 leagues drew attendance of 38.6 million.

High said the Sounds AAA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates drew 298,000 fans last season and are on pace to attract between 350,000 and 400,000 this year.

Still, the Sounds must compete for fans with the NFL's Tennessee Titans and NHL's Nashville Predators, teams that didn't exist when the Nashville baseball team first hit the field in 1978. College athletics also can cut into the attendance base.

''Minor league baseball does a great job of tapping into local interest groups and sub-segments,'' said Rick Oliver, an economist who has done several studies on sports in Nashville. ''They're tapping into a big market, and a legitimate market. I give the Nashville Sounds full credit for going after it.''

Many church groups from rural Tennessee can't afford the more expensive Titans or Predators games or don't want to put up with the sometimes raucous atmosphere, High said.

''There's 3,000 churches in middle Tennessee,'' he said. ''We haven't scratched the surface on getting out and meeting them. The ones we do meet well over 90 percent have gone ahead and brought groups of one kind or another.''

But the Sounds haven't forsaken the secular market. ''Thirsty Thursdays'' promotions continue, and a section of the stadium has been dubbed the Budweiser Party Deck.

''We do tend to group all of our church folks together,'' High said. ''But people are going to be coming up and down the aisles selling beer, and that's part of minor league baseball. Whether you think it's good or bad, it's part of it and I don't think it's going away.''

Bill Gooch was happy for his night at the ballpark to include some religious content. He attended a recent Faith Night with 45 members of the men's ministry group of Longhollow Baptist Church in the suburb of Hendersonville.

''The Lord calls us to be in the world, not apart from it,'' Gooch said. ''You have to get out there and connect and be a good witness. There's only so many canoe trips you can take.''

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Nashville Sounds: http://www.nashvillesounds.com/



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