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Quad Cities front office puts fans first01/04/2008 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
Talk about the domino effect.
In mid-November, the Midwest League's Swing of the Quad Cities was sold to Main Street Iowa, a new ownership group headed by managing partner David Heller. This transaction set in motion a dizzying array of changes to the venerable franchise, which continues to experience a thorough overhaul as it heads toward the 2008 season.
From a "ReName the Team" contest to new uniforms and logos to a rechristened and refurbished stadium and beyond, Quad Cities' front office staff is leaving no stone unturned in its quest to create a vastly improved fan experience in 2008. The driving force behind this franchise re-imagining is Heller, who also owns the South Atlantic League's Columbus Catfish.
"The Quad Cities market is one of the best markets in all of Minor League sports, but the team had been underperforming," said Heller. "We felt that there was a tremendous upside here.
"Quad Cities is a different market in that it's not just one town, it's four cities, and a number of adjacent cities, as well. We want people from all over the area to consider the stadium a central meeting place where they can come together as one and have a great night out at a reasonable price."
One of the pivotal figures assisting Heller in this quest is former Jacksonville Suns general manager Kirk Goodman, who is overseeing the club's operations under the title of "Vice President of Main Street Baseball."
"We need to get this club back to its attendance numbers from the mid-90s, when it was drawing around 250,000 people every year," said Goodman. "To do that, we need to increase the entertainment level at the ballpark to the point where we are looked upon, once again, as a premier destination."
Both Heller and Goodman believe a dedicated and forward thinking staff is an absolute necessity in order to achieve those goals. With the help of second-year general manager Ben Burke, the two men are in the midst of assembling what Heller calls a "veritable all-star team" of front-office personnel, and what Goodman believes will be "the best front office in Class A Baseball, if not all of the Minor Leagues."
"What we are aiming for is a perfect mix of the familiar and exciting," said Heller. "We want to combine people who have a deep rooted knowledge of the area with those who bring exciting ideas and fresh approaches from elsewhere."
Of course, the club does not have the luxury of waiting until this "all-star team" is fully assembled before implementing changes for 2008. One of the biggest, and surely the most immediately recognizable, occurred last month with the announcement that the team will henceforth be known as the Quad Cities River Bandits. This is not a "new" name, so much as a return to the old, as the club went by that moniker from 1992-2003. River Bandits was chosen after it received a commanding 48 percent of the vote among a field of six finalists in the team's online "ReName the Team" contest.
Burke, for his part, says he "wasn't even a little bit surprised" that the fans chose to go back to the River Bandits handle.
"When I first started working here, I made it a point to go out into the community to find out what would we could do to get people to attend more games," recalled the GM. "And what I kept hearing was 'Why'd you change the name?' People liked the Swing, but they had really felt like the River Bandits were a part of the community."
Of course, with the "new" name comes a new logo and uniforms, which the club has been unveiling incrementally over the course of the past month. The primary logo features a bandana-wearing, baseball-wielding raccoon, and a bevy of alternate logos, jerseys and hats have been unveiled (or will soon be unveiled), as well.
Another significant change to the Quad Cities baseball landscape is that the club has sold the naming rights of venerable John O'Donnell Stadium to Modern Woodmen of America, a financial services organization.
"We believe that Modern Woodmen is a perfect partner for us, as they've been around the community even longer than the ballpark," said Goodman. "They do a lot of charity work and have a huge footprint here in the Midwest."
Selling stadium naming rights has resulted in an additional stream of revenue for the club, which has allowed it to take the unorthodox step of lowering ticket prices for the 2008 season. That strategy will certainly help lure fans to the ballpark, where they will be able to witness first-hand a raft of changes to the celebrated 77-year-old facility.
"With the Mississippi River right behind us, and the view of Centennial Bridge, we have one of the best landscapes in all of Minor League Baseball," said Burke. "But nothing has changed in the park since renovations were done in 2004. We're adding a picnic area and party deck, expanding the kids zone, and throwing post-game concerts on Saturday nights. We're also installing a new video board that is two-and-a-half times as big as the old one, and we plan on showing movies on it on select days when the team is out of town."
"The whole idea is to open the park more than 70 times a year, and to keep giving people a reason to come out and visit us."
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the River Bandits will meet their goal of making themselves the premier entertainment destination in the Quad Cities area. It goes without saying, however, that those who are directly involved in the team's early 21st-century re-birth are optimistic about what the future holds.
"What we're doing is better than launching a new team, because this community has a rich baseball tradition and a sense of history that we can draw from," said Heller. "This situation is really the best of both worlds."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.