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April 20, 2010 | last updated December 1, 2011 5:51 am
Portlandbiz

Sea Dogs roll out incentives to draw crowds

Photo/Robert M. Cook
Photo/Robert M. Cook
Charlie Eshbach, general manager of the Portland Sea Dogs
Photo/Robert M. Cook
The scene in the Sea Dogs dugout on home opener night

Charlie Eshbach is never satisfied when it comes to finding new ways to generate ticket sales and maintain strong attendance for Portland Sea Dogs games at Hadlock Field.

But Eshbach, who is now in his 16th season as the Sea Dogs general manager, says the team's number one priority is to make sure fans have an enjoyable and affordable experience.

"We just try to find ways to make it nicer here and get more people to come," says Eshbach, a day after the Sea Dogs lost their home opener against the Trenton Thunder, the Double A affiliate of the New York Yankees.

Each year, he says the Sea Dogs introduce new promotions and improvements to Hadlock Field. When more than 5,000 fans filed into the ballpark Thursday evening, they were greeted by new light banner poles that featured photographs of former Sea Dogs players who are now playing for the Boston Red Sox, including Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury. Other incentives thrown into the mix to get fans to come to the ballpark include fireworks displays on select night games and giveaways of bobblehead dolls, team photos and team card sets.

The team also expanded the green screen in center field -- called the batter's eye -- to give hitters better visibility as they watch the balls sail away from them. Eshbach says the challenge there was that it meant removing some advertisements and replacing that revenue with something else. Part of the solution involved the new Delta Dental Tooth display that is perched just to the left of the left field foul pole above the Hood Monster, the green wall in left field.

The team also installed 32-inch flat screen televisions in Hadlock Field's 17 skyboxes, updated its website, launched a Sea Dogs mobile site to let fans follow the action from their wireless devices and smart phones, and established presences on Twitter and Facebook. Incorporating the latest social networking tools to reach their fans is one of many challenges sports teams face and there is no way to predict where technology will go in the future, Eshbach says. "The key is to learn as you go along."

The team's recent success, which includes the 2006 Eastern League championship, surpassed Eshbach's expectations when he first brought the Sea Dogs to Portland in 1994. The team was then the Double A affiliate of the Florida Marlins and Eshbach hoped to draw about 250,000 fans per year.

Since the Sea Dogs became the Boston Red Sox Double A affiliate in 2003, Eshbach says the team has been able to consistently hit the 400,000 attendance mark and attract more advertising from greater Portland region businesses. The Sea Dogs have 2,200 season ticket holders, the highest number in the Eastern League. Single game ticket prices range from $7 to $9 for adults and $4 to $8 for children and seniors.

But 2009 was a tough year for the Sea Dogs -- not because of the difficult economy, but last year's rainy June and July. Weather conditions make it hard for the team to predict how much revenue it will bring in during the 2010 season, he says.

He says it is also hard to know how the team's primary sources of revenue -- ticket sales, concessions, souvenirs and advertising -- will perform year to year. If attendance is over 400,000 people, but the region is still reeling from the recession, he says some fans may choose to buy fewer souvenirs or less food and that affects the bottom line.

The team employs 14 year-round people and 250 part-time workers during the Sea Dogs' 71 home games, Eshbach says. It takes at least 150 people to stage one home game. "We're putting on a party for 6,000-7,000 people every day."

Someday, Eshbach would like to add more seats. Using Fenway Park's renovation approach, he says the team could add three to four levels of fan seating above the skyboxes behind home plate. "I'm kind of in the Fenway Park frame of mind."

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