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April, 2010

Behind the Curtains

A day in the life of the dedicated staff of the West Michigan Whitecaps.

Behind the Curtains

The bright ballpark lights flip on. The gates swing open.Thousands of eager fans pour into Fifth Third Ballpark, excitedlyhurrying to find their favorite seat, grab a hot dog, or get their handson a tall, frosty cold one.

As the game begins, the West Michigan Whitecaps jumpout to an early lead. A young girl narrowly edges out Crash theRiver Rascal to win the infamous Crash Dash around the infield inthe middle of the third inning. After the bottom of the sixth, the crowdroars in laughter as a local college student stumbles to the groundduring the Dizzy Bat Race. The home team wraps up a narrowvictory, at which point the night sky lights up with a breathtakingfireworks display to cap off the evening with one last memory. Fanshead to the parking lot for the drive home, happily satisfied afterspending a wonderful evening at the ballpark.

What many fans are unaware of, however, is the amount ofpreparation and legwork that goes on behind the scenes of a MinorLeague Baseball operation. The West Michigan Whitecaps have adedicated staff that works year-round to ensure that a relaxing nightat the ballpark for a family of four exceeds expectations and endswith a smile on every fan’s face. Well, except for the tuckered outyoungster asleep in the back seat of the car during the ride home…

“Most people don’t realize that this is a full-time job,” saidChad Sayen, the Whitecaps’ Director of Ticket Sales. “A lot of peopleask what we do during the off-season. For me, the busiest months ofthe year are actually October, November and December when weare putting everything together and planning our ticket offers for thenext season.”

This may come as a surprise given the commonmisconception that there is nothing to do when the team is notplaying home games. For most Whitecaps staffers, however, the offseasonmonths of planning and preparation are equally as busy – ifnot more so – than the in-season focus of hosting baseball games.

“Everybody thinks that working in baseball is reallyglamorous, but it is a lot of hard work,” added Alanna Klomp, whospecializes in group sales and corporate events. “This is a specialjob that I really enjoy, but at the same time we put in a lot of hoursand work hard just like any other office.”

The West Michigan Whitecaps employ 33 full-time staffmembers that work at Fifth Third Ballpark year-round. These are thepeople responsible for coordinating marketing sponsorships, rollingout fan-friendly ticket offers, scheduling popular promotional acts,and keeping the organization active in improving the community – whether there are games being played or not. They are also the keyfigures in overseeing a staff of seasonal and game day employees thatgrows to nearly 550 when the season is in full swing.

On a busy day in March, just three weeks before the 2010home opener, Sayen finds himself in the ticket office putting togethera pair of promotional offers to incentivize fans to pick up mini planpackages. With the sun shining during an unseasonably warm week,spring is an important time for the team to promote such offers as fansbegin to think about baseball and even warmer days ahead. Sayen isalso planning an outing for Whitecaps season ticket holders to attend aDetroit Tigers game against the New York Yankees in May, one of thenumerous perks the team provides season ticket holders on an annualbasis.

Across the office, Ernie McCallum stands in front of a largewhiteboard filled with a color-coded chart. An Account Executive,McCallum is looking at a layout of the Whitecaps 2010 schedule froma sales perspective, complete with a listing of every home game theteam will play this season and the giveaway item, sponsor, theme andpromotion scheduled for that game. On this day, he is looking for luxurysuite availability so that he can provide one of his clients with a fewdates to choose from for their next night on the DTE Energy Suite Level.

McCallum’s cubicle is across from Steve Dirksen, anotherAccount Executive whose primary responsibility is to generate marketingpartnerships with local businesses. Sponsorship and marketingrelationships are a significant part of what allows a business like theWhitecaps to function financially. The Whitecaps annually draw between350,000 and 400,000 fans and specialize in a family-oriented brandof entertainment that results in a lot of young families at the ballpark.As a result, marketing a business at Fifth Third Ballpark is an extremelyeffective way to promote products to families, especially those withchildren living in the household. On the flip side, the revenue generatedfrom such marketing packages plays a significant role in allowing theteam to cover their operating and promotional expenses.

The Whitecaps try to be very unique in providing marketing thatoffers more than just exposure on television or the radio. As a result, Dirksen and the rest of the sales staff are encouraged to think “outsidethe box” to give their clients something memorable and special.

“We have a lot of fun trying to come up with different ways for our partners to cut through the clutter,” explained Dirksen. “It’s funcoming up with the type of ideas that make somebody’s ad stand out. When that excitement transfers to the client, I get excited. It’s a winwinfor everybody.”

One of the most visible examples sits next to the scoreboard behind the left-center field wall at Fifth Third Ballpark, where PenningPlumbing, Heating & Cooling has an advertisement. Instead of a more typical sign on the outfield wall, Dirksen and the owners of thecompany came up with the attention-getting idea to build a giant plunger. In addition to its unusual shape, the mechanical sign also movesup and down to further draw the attention of fans in the seating bowl.

Then, Facility Maintenance Manager John Passarelli added another twist as he was building the plunger. What if it could shoot outwater? Dirksen and his clients loved the idea, and now the giant plunger that moves up and down and shoots off water is a fixture at FifthThird Ballpark.

Anna Peterson strolls through the office on her way to the fax machine. The Whitecaps’ Community Relations Coordinator issending a fax to the Detroit Tigers’ spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida. Part of her job is coordinating the Keep-A-Cap program, inwhich the Whitecaps match incoming players with host families to provide residence during their stay in Grand Rapids. Participating familiesfill out detailed profiles that include information regarding their daily schedule, dietary habits, pets and other house rules.

A packet of these profiles is being sent to Lakeland, and when the Whitecaps roster is finalized at the end of spring training each ofthe players will get a copy. They will then be able to contact the host family they feel is the best fit for their lifestyle.

Once the season begins, Peterson will spend quite a bit of time with the players and mascot on appearances throughout thecommunity. One of her primary responsibilities is coordinating the Whitecaps involvement in community projects to enhance the team’simpact in the West Michigan region. The Whitecaps generally make appearances throughout the Grand Rapids area every morning thatthe team is in town. This may involve anything from players visiting a school to the mascot appearing at the hospital. In March, Peterson arranged for a group of front office staff members to participate in a Habitatfor Humanity project to build a house for a low-income family of six.

“I love it,” said Peterson. “One of the things that drew me intosports as a business is the impact on the community. Grand Rapids is a greatplace and the people here love and look up to the Whitecaps. It can also bean eye-opening experience to see what is going on around the communitybeyond the world of sports.”

In a nearby bank of cubicles, Director of Marketing and MediaRelations Mickey Graham sits across from Promotions and Multi-MediaManager Brian Oropallo.

Graham is putting out a promotion geared towards increasing theWhitecaps’ presence in the quickly growing world of social media. Afterhe places posters around Grand Rapids, fans will have the chance to winfree tickets by taking a picture of the poster and sending it to the Whitecapsthrough Facebook, Twitter or email.

“Social media is another avenue of conversation with our fans,”said Graham. “People post questions on our Facebook page and we cancommunicate with them. We update things that are new with the team in termsof promotions and ballpark events. Social media has exploded in the last fewyears and it’s a great way to reach people where they are.”

Oropallo, meanwhile, is working on the “The Wave,” the game dayprogram that is updated each homestand and made available to fans at nocost. Hanging above his desk is a tongue-in-cheek sign with a picture of aspider spinning a web. It reads: “Webby the spider says, ‘Always think aboutthe website.’” The sign was created years ago when the website became anintegral part of the team’s marketing push, but it continues to hang close bybecause the words continue to ring true.

“I think a lot of fans would be surprised to learn how quickly webegin planning for next season,” commented Oropallo. “Group tickets goon sale in November for the next year, just two monthsafter the previous season ends. By that point, we generallyalready have game times, a basic promotional scheduleand fireworks nights scheduled so we can have apromotional list and send out group brochures.”

Like many members of the Whitecaps front officestaff, Oropallo’s job description changes dramaticallybased on the time of the year. While he spends the bulkof the off-season focusing on graphic design for marketingpieces, his in-season responsibilities include oversight ofthe in-game entertainment from the public address booth.The in-game promotions run seamlessly when viewed fromthe stands, but tying all the pieces together often creates amuch busier picture behind the scenes.

“The most chaotic parts of the on-field presentationare the pre-game activities because there are a lot ofparticipants and elements to coordinate,” he explained.“On any given night we might have 10-15 first pitches, aNational Anthem singer and a group of Baseball Buddiesdown on the field waiting for their opportunity to getinvolved. The timing of it all is pretty rigid because thegame needs to start on time.”

There are a lot of moving parts to the in-gameentertainment when the on-field activity is combined with the audio from the Public Address and the visuals played on the video board, but asuccessful night for Oropallo and his staff means that the presentation appears clean and easy to the fans in the seats.

And as fans leave the parking lot at Fifth Third Ballpark at the end of a game, the staff wraps up a long day at the office. Theconcession stands close their registers. The ticket office recaps a busy night. The production crew reflects on what went well and what can bedone differently. The groundskeeper begins preparing the field for the next day’s game. The operations staff turns off the lights and locks thedoors.

And tomorrow, they will do it all over again.