These days, it's possible to be in two places at once, in a manner of speaking. Almost everyone in today's world has a smartphone and uses it constantly in an attempt to transport to other places and be with people who aren't physically near them. We check social media, text and often hold several conversations at once. We often forget to be present in the moments that make up our lives. On June 20, the Corpus Christi Hooks sought to interrupt that pattern, if only for three hours.
During a Thursday night game against the Springfield Cardinals, the Hooks went phone-free for the entire night, becoming the first professional baseball team to do so and earning Minor League Baseball's June Promotion of the Month award. From the time fans entered the stadium to the time they exited, cell phone use was prohibited throughout the ballpark, except in designated "phone zones." The event kicked off the Hooks' Coastal Bend Conservation Weekend.
"The initial reaction from fans was about what you'd expect," said Hooks director of marketing JD Davis. "Some fans were turned off by the idea, but I think they were more turned off by not knowing what that meant. People read the headline and said, 'I'm not giving my phone up and turning it in to some stranger.' So, it was really an educational process for us to make sure people understood they would keep their phone the whole time. They just wouldn't be able to look at it."
Contrary to initial assumptions, the Hooks did not seek to confiscate cell phones at the gate. Instead, the team worked with a company called Yondr to allow fans to keep their phones while restricting their access to them. Upon entering the gates, each fan received a Yondr pouch that would be locked and returned to the fan after the phone was placed in it. With their phones securely locked away, fans could feel and hear notifications come in, but they could not check or answer them while remaining in the seating bowl or in any spot where the field was in view. For some it took some convincing, but fans eventually understood the reasoning behind phone-free environments.
"One fan came back to the phone zone every inning for the first three or four innings to check his phone. By the fourth time he came he finally said, 'Every time I check it, none of the notifications are important. None of these things matter.' He almost had this lightbulb moment and finally understood the point of us doing this."
Just a few days prior to the historic theme night, the Hooks got word that Houston Astros outfielder and 2017 World Series champion George Springer could potentially begin a rehab stint in Corpus Christi on June 20. Such an arrival typically sparks nothing but excitement in an MiLB front office, but this revelation nearly threw a wrench in the team's plans.
Astros All-Star George Springer also made a rehab appearance on June 20.
"We kind of went back and forth on whether to continue to do the phone-free game with Springer in town. We were worried about cutting ourselves off from all the extra attention we would get from fans and on social media, but we wanted to stick with it."
Instead of throwing out the theme, the Hooks took the news of Springer's assignment and ran with it. Every time he was mentioned in local news, so was a reference to the phone-free night at Whataburger Field. Be it through social media, TV, a blog or print news, if fans knew Springer would be at Whataburger Field, they knew cell phones wouldn't be.
The decision to keep the promotion was the right one as the theme night garnered media attention from MLB Network, USA Today, Ballpark Digest and AT&T SportsNet, as well as from various Astros beat reporters. In addition to a spike in traditional media attention, the Hooks made a large gain in various social media metrics. Namely, engagement with the Hooks jumped nearly 400 percent during Coastal Bend Conservation Weekend and social impressions increased more than 160 percent, despite the lack of the Hooks' social media presence during the phone-free game. The effect on the ballpark was noticeable as the team drew nearly 6,200 fans for the theme night, approximately 1,700 more than its nightly game average.
"I would say well over the majority of fans who were commenting on social media were talking about how great of an idea this was and how they were looking forward to it. They were tagging their friends and family and saying they needed to go to the game because it was going to be a lot of fun," said Davis. "We had several people come up to us after the game and mention how much fun they had with their families and how much they just enjoyed their company and being in the presence of everybody else."
Newsworthy as it was, the phone-free game wasn't a publicity stunt or a one-off event for the Hooks. The event kicked off Coastal Bend Conservation Weekend, a promotion to raise awareness for conservation efforts. Just a few days prior, the team assembled a beach sweep, where it attracted more than 250 people (including fans, players and front office staff) to clean up four different beaches in the Corpus Christi area. Throughout the weekend, Hooks games spotlighted conservation and environmental organizations such as Texas Parks and Wildlife and local parks and recreation groups. As part of the promotion, the Hooks provided fans with some unique offerings, including a photo booth on the concourse to help capture their night at the ballpark and serve as a memento. Coastal Bend Conservation Weekend also included the team wearing specialty jerseys that were auctioned off to benefit a local conservation group.
"The phones-free game tied in so well with the conservation theme because it was about putting down our phones, getting rid of the distractions and connecting with friends and family outdoors. We look straight out into the Corpus Christi Bay and have some great scenic points in our outfield, so we're really lucky to have one of the best views in Minor League Baseball and we want our fans to enjoy it."
In the future, the Hooks plan to continue hosting phone-free games and are already preparing for next season. With their location overlooking the Texas Coastal Bend, the team wants to make every effort to play its part in protecting its environment. The phone-free game is a step in the right direction.
"We just kind of become numb to it, and we don't realize how often it's distracting us," said Davis. "It was, even for us working the event, a reminder that we don't have to fill every moment with distractions -- that we can just live in the moment and enjoy what's around us."
Of course, you don't have to go to a Hooks game to unplug and experience the world around you. It's simple to do yourself and doesn't require a special pouch with a special key. But if you're going to rid yourself of distractions from your phone, why not catch some baseball while you're at it?