The 20th anniversary of Wilmington Sharks baseball in 2017 came with somewhat of a reboot, led by new owners and a renewed focus on improving fan experience and increasing community involvement to strengthen the team’s foothold in the Cape Fear region.
A year later, during the team’s May through August season, results are trending upward.
“Attendance is up across the board for what we’ve seen thus far,” said Director of Baseball Operations Carson Bowen, adding, “Based on all the investments we’re making it’s going to continue to climb.”
The Wilmington Sharks is part of the Coastal Plain League, a summer collegiate baseball league with 16 teams in the South. Last year, Matt Perry and Bill Davidson, of Kansas-based National Sports Service, bought the Port City franchise
, which has been a member of the league since it started in 1997.
This summer, the Sharks have been averaging over 1,200 fans per game at Buck Hardee Field at Legion Stadium. The team works around a targeted sellout number of 1,700 before hitting a ceiling of seating, parking, concessions, bathrooms and service points for fans. In 2017 attendance, the Sharks finished just behind Coastal Plain League rival Holly Springs Salamanders, which drew 1,179 per game.
The Sharks’ investments revolve around improving the fan experience with upgrades to the club’s ticketing system, picnic area and beer garden; enhancing the layout of Buck Hardee Field with additional seating, safety netting and new service points throughout the concourse; and launching a video broadcast to help reach new fans.
The ballpark improvements came without an increase in ticket prices of $7 for general admission and $9 and $11 for reserved bleacher and home plate box seats.
Sharks game-day promotions include Friday Night Fireworks, bobblehead giveaways, Jaws-N-Paws (bring your dog to the ballpark, with a portion of proceeds going to a local humane society) and the popular Thirsty Thursdays with $1 beers.
FOR THE LONG RUN
In 2012, New Hanover County voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot item for a $37 million baseball stadium, which would have been home to a new professional minor league team not affiliated with the Wilmington Sharks. Although the contentious issue left a bad taste in the mouths of some Wilmingtonians, there was still enough love for baseball in the area for the county, city and school district to spend more than $150,000 in 2014 to upgrade Buck Hardee Field.
Tapping that love for the game, the Sharks and Director of Community Relations Tom Lamont are staking their claim in the Cape Fear community for the long run, aiming to develop strong relationships with businesses and organizations.
Through these partnerships, the Sharks are creating programs such as Read Around the Bases, which rewards kids who read four books over the summer with free tickets to a game, and Sharky’s Kids, working with local organizations to offer underprivileged kids and children with disabilities a free ticket and traditional ballpark meal. The Sharks anticipate reaching over 2,000 local children through the program this season.
Hayley Sink is executive director of ACCESS of Wilmington, which oversees The Miracle League, an accessible baseball league. She said the Sharks help allow close to 200 children and adults living with disabilities across southeastern North Carolina experience playing baseball.
“Baseball is an opportunity for recreation, but also to celebrate and build community,” she said. “From raising awareness and holding equipment drives, to inviting our All Stars to attend a baseball game, often for the first time, and be part of the team, we are so grateful to have the Sharks celebrating inclusion and investing in all individuals in our community.”
The Wilmington Sharks also works to engage the local business community through advertising, sponsoring special event nights or helping to fund unique activities. One of these is the Heroes Box, wherein the club honors local individuals serving the community such as firefighters, law enforcement, EMTs, nurses, teachers and active duty or retired military. Heroes Box guests are welcomed as VIPs with a field-side dugout suite, meal and special recognition during each home game.
The Wilmington Sharks puts on 26 home games with a handful of staffers.
“If we were just rolling out a baseball and taking turns scoring runs, this would be an easy list to make,” Bowen said between sweeping up peanut shells and printing off will-call tickets.
“Weeks in advance we confirm caterings for group outings, food trucks for the weekend, choreograph on-field promotions, receive deliveries of buns and hairnets or shipments of bobbleheads from LAX, on and on and on,” he said.
Another aspect of life in the Coastal Plain League is the need for local families to host players. Sharks teammates come from all over the country to play in Wilmington and are set up with a free place to live. The team interviews and plays matchmaker for the players and host families, who are provided with season tickets.
One host, Sara Goodwin, traveled to the University of Arkansas to see her “summer son” Grant Koch play for the Razorbacks. Her experience was so strong, she became the Sharks host family coordinator.
According to Bowen, the organization has been working to transition the Sharks into more of a year-round operation. All the hard work, he said, continues to pay off.
“I always get a kick out of our crowds,” Bowen said. “Seeing them come together to take in a night at the ballpark, or seeing young kids light up at the chance to get an autograph reminds us all why we started doing this to begin with.”