Through it all, Toledo keeps sports passion
Listen to any championship team or player talk, and you’re bound to hear tales of adversity. Overcoming obstacles, rebounding from difficult circumstances, responding to challenging times — all of that is part of the pathway to No. 1.
|The Class AAA Mud Hens have averaged 87 percent capacity in their 11 full seasons at Fifth Third Field.
It’s lost businesses: Over the past 30 years, Fortune 500 auto parts companies Sheller-Globe, Champion and Libbey-Owens-Ford each folded or left town.
It’s lost jobs: The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services announced last monththat June’s 8.5 percent unemployment rate in Toledo was higher than it was a year ago, heading in the opposite direction of three-quarters of the country’s other metropolitan areas.
It’s lost people: The area’s population now totals about 440,000, 10 percent less than it was in the early 1970s.
And its teams have lost. A lot. Toledo’s baseball teams have won four league championships since 1898, finishing in the bottom half of the league’s standings in seven out of every 10 seasons. In a few weeks, the Class AAA Mud Hens will finish the 2013 campaign with one of the worst records in the International League, just like last year and the year before. On the ice, it has been a generation since Toledo last celebrated a hockey championship, the most recent title coming after the 1993-94 season.
Yet Toledoans have sustained their passion for the city’s teams through it all.
“I pinch myself every day,” said Joe Napoli, president and general manager of Toledo Mud Hens Baseball Club Inc., the group that operates both the Mud Hens and ECHL Toledo Walleye. “If you could write a fairy tale that maps it all out, both from a personal and professional perspective, this would be it.”
Despite the economic challenges of the market, total minor league sports attendance in Toledo has increased 35 percent over the past five years, and fans have filled a combined 79 percent of all available seats. Napoli said the Mud Hens’ season-ticket base is around 3,000, or one-third of the seats at Fifth Third Field. Walleye season-ticket holders make up about one-quarter of the capacity of 8,000-seat Huntington Center.
Adding to the strength of the marketplace is the fact that the teams’ operating group is a nonprofit entity, and the Board of Lucas County Commissioners is the beneficiary of 100 percent of the net proceeds of the clubs. The county also owns both the Mud Hens’ Fifth Third Field (which opened in 2002) and the Walleye’s Huntington Center (2009) and uses the revenue streams from the facilities exclusively for each venue’s capital repairs and maintenance and to pay off each building’s debt service.
A staff of 15 people sells season and group tickets for both teams. The combination of group sales and season tickets means that by each club’s respective Opening Day, half the Walleye’s available tickets have been sold and more than 70 percent of Mud Hens seats are sold out for the season.
“They have taught us that every employee can treat every potential problem a fan might have as an opportunity to convert that person into a lifetime fan,” he said. “We’ve learned to overwhelm the fan with solutions.”
The organization hires Ohio-based mystery shopping firm IntelliShop to conduct game-day experience research. Additionally, about 500 seasonal employees are hired between the two teams, but those folks are trained to be ambassadors year-round. Eighty-five percent of ushers and ticket takers come back every year, Napoli said. And to further integrate itself into the fabric of the community, the ownership group has developed internship programs with the University of Toledo, Owens Community College, Bowling Green State University and Lourdes University. Bowling Green alone has supplied about 40 interns each summer for about 20 years.
GAINING AN IDENTITY
The baseball history of Toledo dates to 1883 and a team known as the Toledo Blue Stockings, the first of about a dozen clubs that would play in the market over the next several years. As for the unique Mud Hens moniker of the modern-era club, that draws from the ownership years of Charles J. Strobel, an oil magnate and Sandusky, Ohio, native, who bought the team in the late 1800s. Strobel is credited with recognizing the market’s potential to the point that he financed the construction of Armory Park in 1897, one of the first permanent minor league ballparks in the country.
|Former Mud Hens owner Charles J. Strobel built Armory Park, among the first permanent minor league ballparks.
Fast forward almost a century, and the permanence of the nickname was secured.
In 1978, Gene Cook, a public relations executive from a Toledo-based concrete company, was named general manager of the Mud Hens. Like much of the nation, Cook had been watching the hit CBS series “M*A*S*H” for several years. One of the show’s characters was Cpl. Maxwell Klinger, a fictional Toledo native played by Jamie Farr, who was, in fact, born in the city. And the folks responsible for creating Klinger had real-life Ohio ties: Creator Gene Reynolds was from Cleveland, and writer Larry Gelbart had gotten his show business break years earlier by writing jokes for Toledo native Danny Thomas.
Cook, immediately after taking on his new role in the spring of 1978, launched a marketing campaign that changed the city’s sports fortunes forever.
Instead, “M*A*S*H” writer Ken Levine, who Farr said was a big baseball fan and knew about the Mud Hens, began having Klinger wear the Mud Hens’ apparel sent by Cook. It was a hit on the set and at the team’s switchboard.
“When they first mentioned the Mud Hens on the show, a lot of people on the set didn’t even believe that it was a real team,” Farr said. “The writers grew up in towns where the Mud Hens played their teams. They figured you must be crazy to name your team the Mud Hens, and Klinger is this bizarre character, so it all made sense!”
|Through “M*A*S*H,” Jamie Farr made the Mud Hens a hit.
Team attendance soared 60 percent over the previous season. The appearance of the team’s apparel on one of the most watched series of the decade catapulted the club to Minor League Baseball’s top echelon of merchandise sales, as well. Merchandise orders (and envelopes of foreign currencies) poured in from around the world, launching a lucrative business that still exists for the team. The club, a Detroit Tigers affiliate, has been one of MiLB’s top-selling teams for the past 16 seasons though over the past 20 years the Mud Hens have had only six winning seasons.
“Nothing is more conducive to unhappiness than taking yourself seriously,” said political satirist, journalist, author and Toledo native P.J. O’Rourke, “and taking yourself seriously is difficult when your baseball team is called the Mud Hens.”
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
Although the Mud Hens are clearly the anchor of Toledo’s sports world, hockey has enjoyed a mostly successful history in the market. The year 1947 marked the debut of the 5,230-seat Toledo Sports Arena, at that time state of the art, and the International Hockey League’s Toledo Mercurys. Hockey continued in the city for years, with various teams and leagues calling the arena home. By the 2000s, however, the venue’s intimate setting could not make up for its cramped locker rooms, missing luxury suites and lack of modern amenities. Attendance declined, and when the 2006-07 ECHL season ended, so too did the existence of the Toledo Storm.
But by that time, Toledo had seen the effect a new facility could have in the market. The Mud Hens’ $39.2 million Fifth Third Field opened in 2002, and though it was built during a recession in Ohio, that didn’t seem to matter. Twenty-five companies had signed 10-year suite leases and paid for two years up front to help provide seed money for the construction. Original blueprints had called for 20 suites, but the final product had 28.
Napoli said that even as the market’s economics worsened over the past three years, the corporate base has remained solid.
“We were in the middle of a recession, and the leases at all 28 suites were up for renewal,” he said. “We figured we’d get maybe 25 companies between partial- and full-season leases. Forty companies signed during the recession, including 39 of 40 renewals. We were flabbergasted.”
(Today, in the 11 full seasons the Mud Hens have played there, the team has averaged 557,000 fans a year, a staggering 87 percent capacity. The financial success of the Mud Hens has exceeded projections, and the county expects to make the final bond payment on the ballpark in 2016, which is five years earlier than originally anticipated. The remaining balance as of May was $5.5 million. Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp has three years left on its $5 million, 15-year naming-rights deal.)
|Toledo regained hockey when the Huntington Center opened and welcomed the Walleye.
“Our market research showed us that families were willing to sample hockey, and we were pretty sure that we could put together an overall experience that would get them hooked,” Napoli said. “Now, families with children are our No. 1 demographic for hockey ticket sales.”
Lucas County financed the $98 million Huntington Center by raising the hotel-motel lodging tax from 8 percent to 10 percent to generate $5 million. The county also issued about $60 million in bonds and notes, and it secured additional public funding through state and local leaders. An additional $2.1 million came from a six-year naming-rights deal with Huntington Bank.
The Walleye debuted with the arena in 2009, and the team has averaged 223,172 in attendance over its first four seasons, a 25 percent increase over the market’s previous best hockey season, back in 1977-78. The club has yet to see any honeymoon effect wear off, setting a team record for attendance in 2012-13 with 226,743 fans.
The Walleye also led the ECHL in merchandise sales in 2011-12, said Todd Merton, director of marketing and licensing for the league. Although the full set of ECHL data for 2012-13 had not been fully audited by the league as of July 31, Merton said preliminary team-by-team data from the most recent season shows the Walleye most likely will remain No. 1.
Last month, the ECHL named Napoli its Executive of the Year.
Despite the popularity of the Mud Hens, the Walleye, the stadium and the arena, no one is glossing over Toledo’s shortcomings, nor taking the future for granted. Napoli acknowledges the challenges of marketing in a region with a stagnant population and an uncertain economic direction. But he notes how the fans’ love of their teams mirrors their love of the town.
He’s not alone.
“Even when I was growing up there, I thought Toledo was like living in a Norman Rockwell illustration,” said Farr, to whom the Mud Hens have permanently assigned the ‘No. 1’ jersey. “It’s not what it used to be, but it’s still a nice place to be.”