When the Southern League affiliate formerly in Zebulon, N.C., moved to the Florida Panhandle and became the Pensacola Blue Wahoos
, some box office success seemed likely. In addition to the obvious factors of the new team's arrival and the opening of a new 5,000-seat ballpark overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, the move opened up potential Southern League rivalries with the Jacksonville Suns
(just under six hours east on I-10) and Mobile BayBears
(about an hour away).
The rivalry with the Suns is underway before the teams even meet on the field. Jacksonville has led the circuit in attendance for nine years running, but Pensacola is making an early push to challenge that streak.
Last week, the Blue Wahoos announced that the team had stopped selling season tickets after heavy demand resulted in 3,000 full-season tickets sold. That number, along with 400 mini-plans sold on the first day they were available, translates to more than 230,000 tickets sold before the team even plays a game.
That number alone would have placed the club sixth in the 10-team Southern League in attendance last season.
"Yeah, no chance," Blue Wahoos Executive Vice-President Jonathan Griffith said with a laugh when asked if the team had expected such a large number. "It's a pleasant surprise. I mean, we knew we were going to do well, just with the ballpark and everything else, but at the end of the day I don't think anybody expected to sell that many season tickets in a Minor League ballpark."
Season-ticket and mini-plan sales were the primary focus of the team's early marketing efforts. Capping full-season ticket sales at the current level allows the club to spread its remaining resources among locals who can't afford season tickets, summer tourists and military personnel on various local bases. Griffith said that several ideas are being discussed to bring those groups to the ballpark.
In addition to focused sales efforts, Griffith attributes the early-season ticket demand to Pensacola's history as a town that "really thrives on baseball," noting that Orioles manager Buck Showalter and "some Hall of Famers" have called the city home. The last affiliated team to play in the city, however, was the Alabama-Florida League's Pensacola Senators, which last saw action in the 1962 season.
Pensacola was without professional baseball until 2002, when the independent Pelicans came to town. The Pelicans played in three different leagues (Southeastern, Central and American Association) in nine years of existence before being sold and moving to Amarillo for the 2011 season.
"They averaged roughly 1,000 fans a game. They had about 75 season ticket holders that were very loyal and diehard baseball fans," said Griffith of the Pensacola Pelicans.
"What we bring to town is much more of the entertainment and the family value. It's a different style of baseball; it's a different level of baseball. Two years from now you'll see these guys in a Reds uniform on television, and that's a really big deal to get to see that kind of talent this early here in Pensacola. It's something they haven't seen since the '60s."
It's clear that the Blue Wahoos have already made an impact, with 230,000 tickets already sold a week before single-game passes go on sale. Equally clear is their acknowledgement that the process of building a successful organization is not a short-term endeavor.
Ultimately, the goal is to duplicate Jacksonville's results and become the team that others are looking to knock off a decade from now.
"In the first year of anything you do, the newness is great. But we are kind of creating a culture and a whole format here that we're not looking at just this year. We're looking at the next 10 years," said Griffith.
"It started out with our sponsorships. The sponsorships that we have are three-to-five years. Our season ticketholders, we really pushed that three-year activity. And then, of course, every year we're going to keep going and trying to get people to commit for multiple years, because this is something that if it happens for one year, we have a great year and then never again, nobody wins.
"We're really looking for that long-time partnership with all of our sponsors and our season ticket-holders and the community. If we don't have the community support, then we're not doing what we need to do."