Rob Zerjav can’t really define the off-season anymore.
It’s a cool spring day, but the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers offices at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium buzz with activity like a beehive on a summer afternoon.
“Once you get to the season, everything is finally happening and it just goes,” says Zerjav, who has been with the T-Rats since starting as an unpaid intern in 1997. “We are very passionate about what we do.”
If the bobbleheads that populate his office could move of their own accord, there would be a whole lot of nodding going on.
There always seems to be a list of tasks to tackle.
On this particular Friday, T-Rats staff flit about the stadium. A visiting group of nearly 200 are holding a meeting in the Timber Rattlers banquet venue — one of the team’s newest ventures; marketing staff works on new promotions for the season; mascots are escorted to and from public appearances; and the community relations staff works with young fans — and schools — from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to south of Fond du Lac.
It’s not an aberration. Summer’s pastime has become a multi-faceted and year-round proposition.
“Our primary focus will always be about marketing baseball,” says Zerjav, who became president and general manager of the team at 27. “But we will look at every opportunity that helps us do that.”
In many ways, that’s the economic reality of sports, from top flight teams in the largest markets to the small independents at the sport’s lowest levels. In order to put an affordable product on the field and ensure long-term survival, sports teams have branched into other ventures to keep themselves
The Green Bay Packers run year-round operations in the atrium of Lambeau Field and have been acquiring property around Lambeau Field with an eye toward retail developments that would help support the team. The Milwaukee Bucks recently announced plans for a new downtown arena that includes retail, office and entertainment developments.
While not to the same scale, the Timber Rattlers — as well as many of the other teams in Minor League Baseball — are pursuing revenue opportunities outside the team and the season. Every dollar earned outside ticket sales enhances the team’s financial strength and enhances the experience it can offer.
Professional baseball in Appleton may never have become the $5 million-a-year enterprise it is today if Major League Baseball had not forced the issue in the early 1990s. With millions of dollars being invested in up-and-coming talent, MLB decided it had too much at stake for its prospects to play in inadequate stadiums minus modern amenities and training tools.
In 1994, MLB adopted minimum standards for minor league facilities such as clubhouses and fields. The age of the character stadiums featured in movies such as “Bull Durham” had come to an end.
“We were woefully short,” says John Wollner, the first president of the Timber Rattlers.
While Appleton had been home to professional baseball for nearly 100 years at that point, the team — then the Appleton Foxes — was playing at Goodland Field, a relic of the 1940s and well short of the new standards. The future of baseball was very much in doubt.
Longtime fans fondly recall the old stadium and that era in the team’s history.
“It was a little more old-school, but it was a great place to watch a game,” says Neenah-resident Jeff Kroll, who has followed the T-Rats since the 1970s.
“True, the stadium was a little run-down, and parking was terrible, but I loved going.”
Even with the positive recollections of Goodland, Kroll says the T-Rats made the right move to build a new stadium.
“It was time,” he says. “If they were going to stay competitive in the market they are in, they had to do it.”
The options were pretty simple: upgrade Goodland, sell the team or find a way to build a new stadium.
Though Goodland Field could have been upgraded, the facility is city-owned and at the time, the city did not readily embrace the idea of expensive improvements. Additionally, finding ways to increase seating — attendance had peaked at 90,000 in 1978 — or parking would have required city approval and involvement and still may not have provided the capacity the team needed to be successful going forward.
Not that the Foxes hadn’t done well on the field. The team was home — at least for a short time — to players such as Alex Rodriguez and legendary managers such as Cal Ripken Sr.
Building on that legacy and betting there was a yet untapped market for professional baseball, particularly if the team’s appeal could be broadened, supporters raised $5 million from private sources and built what is now Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium.
In addition to a new stadium, the team changed its name to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and initiated a marketing campaign beyond its traditional Fox Cities market.
It was the business equivalent of a squeeze play, and in this case, the runner beat the throw and scored.
“Anytime you take on a project of that size, there is risk,” Wollner says.
That risk turned to reward almost immediately when attendance nearly tripled from about 75,000 in the team’s final year at Goodland to more than 209,000 the first year at Fox Cities Stadium in 1995. The additional space allowed for new amenities appealing to fans, driving increased attendance and revenue.
“Minor League Baseball went from being a mom-and-pop operation to being a business,” Zerjav says of the changes. “We came in at the right time with a group of young and passionate people, and many of them are still involved.”
And they’ve had some major wins.
In addition to the T-Rats, the stadium has been home to the NCAA Division III World Series, now in its 16th year and locked in through 2018. The Wisconsin high school baseball championships are also played at Fox Cities Stadium, and are locked in until 2020.
Those events combined contribute an estimated $700,000 in tourism spending each year.
“Those two events have allowed us to become the destination for high-level baseball players,” says Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing for the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We are creating a name well beyond the event.”
While it’s harder to track the economic impact of the regular season, or events such as the Jordy Nelson Charity Softball Game, the T-Rats have created an asset for the community.
“They have a lot of things going on. We use them to sell the area to other groups and sport events,” Ten Haken says.
Some of the same economics driving the 1990’s decision to rebrand the team and build Fox Cities Stadium featured prominently several years later with the decision to expand the stadium between the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Working with Boldt Construction Co., the team initiated a nearly 28,000-square-foot, $16.2 million renovation of both floors including a new front office, commissary, staff offices, team store, tailgate restrooms, kitchen, banquet hall, bar, suites and an elevated club level exterior seating area.
Coming off of 2012’s championship season, the new amenities helped drive total attendance for the season to 241,938. Even with six games lost to weather, the team averaged 3,780 fans per game, a franchise record.
The new stadium and amenities has certainly made an impression on fans like Kroll, who attends up to 20 games a season. Kroll is particularly impressed with the new luxury boxes.
“I think it gives people a major league experience right here,” Kroll says.
The team’s ongoing efforts continue to impress Kroll, who notes there almost always a new improvement each year at the stadium, which he now considers one of the top in baseball. Others agree, the stadium was recently noted as one of the top 10 in all of minor league baseball.
Beyond improving fan experiences during the games, these latest renovations further enhanced the team’s marketing and outside revenue opportunities.
“We have this great venue and it was sitting empty six months of the year,” Zerjav says. “We saw what Lambeau did with the atrium and what other teams were adding. We knew it was time for us to expand the stadium for the crowds, so our thought was ‘How can we create year-round revenue and keep things on the upswing?’”
As the Class A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, the costs of the players and coaches are paid by the parent club. The Timber Rattlers are responsible for marketing, maintaining quality facilities and transportation.
The expansion provided several new opportunities to market and extend the brand.
Perhaps the most successful of those is the team’s rapidly growing banquet and meeting business. Using the new second floor banquet space in concert with the renovated luxury suites and Leinie’s Lodge, the team can accommodate small groups or a large group of up to 250. A plated dinner event can fit nearly 300.
Already, a wide range of professional groups has taken advantage of the space and its multiple configurations, from doctor’s groups to the United Way to the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce’s Cultivate, which will be held there later this month.
It’s no coincidence that corporate groups have been a primary target.
“It’s been a business focus to get key leaders here,” says Hillary Basten, the team’s manager of banquets and events. “It’s important for them to see our growth and what we can do.”
Weddings have also proven to be a great draw for the new space. With all of the available 2015 dates booked by early March, Basten was already taking bookings for early 2016.
Indeed, these are interesting times for Basten, who might be setting up for a meeting of insurance professionals one day, then transforming the space for a wedding the next.
“I think people are always surprised by what we are able to do,” she says. “We can create a real change of pace.”
The success of the banquet operations — the team exceeded its budget projections the first year — has given the team a new, year-round revenue opportunity to extend its marketing and finance on-field amenities the players and the parent club are looking for from its minor league affiliates.
But that’s not the only part of the operation working year-round.
In fact, there is very little downtime for most of the Timber Rattlers’ 27-person permanent staff, from ticket sales to marketing and promotions. The season itself is certainly hectic, particularly when you look at the range of on- and off-field promotions that take place during those six months. They all have to be planned out well before the players take the field. The heavy lifting starts about one week after the players leave for the year.
“We spend most of September taking a look at what worked, what didn’t and what we can add,” says Hilary Bauer, the team’s director of marketing, who can also be seen in between innings playing the role of on-field master of ceremonies, from the top of the T-Rats dugout.
Bauer has the task of directing the “bratzooka,” character races and many of the other in-game events the team stages each game.
The planning efforts included partner promotions for every home game on the schedule, including the ever-popular bobblehead giveaways. One of the new promotions this year will included a “Back to the Future” theme, featuring Appleton Foxes throwback jerseys.
“We are always looking for things to get to know our fans better and to get them more involved,” Bauer says. “The baseball part may slow down in the off-season, but we still have plenty of things to market.”
While Bauer is working on extending the team’s brand, Community Relations Manager Dayna Baitinger is building the audience of the future. Baitinger orchestrates several of the team’s outreach programs, particularly Fang’s Reading Club, which enables students from 175 participating schools to earn a free ticket to the game by reading.
Participating schools cover a geographic footprint from Escanaba, Mich., to Sheboygan. As the tickets are earned, she also coordinates when the schools will visit the stadium, usually handling three to four schools per night.
Baitinger also coordinates player appearances at events throughout the community and has developed several new programs such as Whiffer’s Fitness Club with the YMCA and Subway.
“We are always looking for new ways to get the community engaged,” she says. “We like to have that pressure. We are a community team.”
That sentiment is one that Wollner is reminded of every time he comes back to the stadium to see the team play. There is nothing he likes better than seeing the stands full of fans having a good time.
He’ll even recommend the best seats in the house for you: section 107, row E, seats one and two. The team gave him the original seats after the renovation.
“It’s now 20 years later and people are still coming out to the ballpark,” Wollner says. “Whenever I drive by, it seems there is always someone there and something up on the scoreboard. It’s just great to see.”
Current Milwaukee Brewers who played with the Timber Rattlers
» P Wily Peralta
» C Martin Maldonado
» OF Khris Davis
» IF Scooter Gennett
» P Jimmy Nelson
» P Mike Fiers
» P Tyler Thornburg
» IF Jason Rogers
» P Jeremy Jeffress
» OF Carlos Gomez
» C Jonathan Lucroy
» IF Aramis Ramirez
Hall of Famers with ties to the Appleton Foxes/Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
» Earl Weaver, manager, Fox Cities Foxes, 1960-61
» Rich “Goose” Gossage, pitcher, Appleton Foxes, 1970-71, 1974
» Pat Gillick, pitcher Fox Cities Foxes 1960
» Travis Jackson, manager Appleton Papermakers 1953