Ever since my nephew was born, I've wanted to take him to his first baseball game. His father is not much of a baseball fan, so I felt it was my duty, as a big baseball fan and frequent writer of things baseball-related, to take the little guy when he was old enough to his first game. Whether he wanted to go to more games afterwards, well, that would be totally up to him. But Uncle Mike wanted to take him to Game 1.
A few weeks ago, I learned my nephew’s pre-K day care was taking the kids, including my nephew, to a Brevard County Manatees game. I absolutely had to be there. So I made the trip from Tampa to Melbourne, Florida to at least take some pictures of my nephew at the ballpark.
Although it was his first trip to Space Coast Stadium, it was far from mine. I’ve been dozens of times since I saw my first game in the stadium's first year in 1994. I’ve been walking the halls there for almost 20 years.
My latest visit to Space Coast Stadium before the game with my nephew was for the 2010 Florida State League All-Star Game. And like my write-up for that visit, I am using several graded categories, in an attempt to break down the entire experience.
Ticket Prices: B
The game my nephew’s day care brought him to was on 2013 Camper’s Day at Space Coast Stadium. According to the promotional flyer, kids were charged $4 to attend instead of the normal $7. For $4 dollars more, they got a hot dog lunch with a Capri Sun and an oatmeal cream pie. And chaperones got in for free. Not bad. The end result was a few hundred attendees and probably 2/3 were kids of various ages.
Parking was free. I am not sure if this was because it was a day game on a Tuesday, or because it was a kids' promotion, or if the Manatees have instituted a “free parking” policy in the last few years. But I can’t argue with free.
The Game: B
It was a good contest between the Manatees and the Dunedin Blue Jays. Not a lot of runs, but the home team did end up winning 3-1.
Merchandise Stand: D
As it was a sparsely attended day game in the middle of the week, Space Coast Stadium didn’t have their primary merchandise store open. But they did have open a small merchandise stand. And I needed a new hat.
In the middle of the fourth inning or so, I walked to the small merch stand hoping to buy a hat. There were two guys in the booth standing around. I waited for a few minutes before one finally asked if I needed anything. Not “Can I help you?”. Strike 1.
I told the merch stand guy I was looking for a hat. I don’t wear fitted hats. I like my hats adjustable. Unfortunately, all the non-fitted hats on the racks at Space Coast Stadium look like old man fishing hats. Not good. The merch guy didn’t seem willing to help me find a new hat nor did he suggest I go to the Manatees website – maybe they have them on there. He didn't bring any to me to try on, to take a closer look at, or anything. Like I said, I was there to buy a hat. Strike 2.
Then I asked the merch guy if they carried shirts for kids – such as one I might buy for my little nephew. I couldn't tell from on the other side of the counter if the smallest ones on the rack would be small enough. He told me all they had there was all they sold. Again, he didn't point me to the website or anywhere else. Strike 3 for the merch stand.
I walked away empty handed and frustrated.
I had only one visit to the concession stand for a drink. It was 2 for 1 day. Drinks are always pricey at the ballpark, at least today it was less so.
Considering there were a few hundred kids in the stands, the person in the Manny the Manatee suit did a horrible job. Absolutely terrible. Manny stood by the Manatees dugout the entire game and never once wandered the concourse. He participated in a few between inning contests, but that was it. Otherwise he just stood there. It would have been nice for the mascot to visit each of the day care or summer camp groups that were in the crowd. The kids would have been happy and it would have made for great photo ops.
I get that it is 90 degrees in the day time in Florida in the summer. But that is the price for putting on the mascot suit. The mascot has 9 innings worth of time to visit different parts of the park. Manny the Manatee did nothing.
Stadium Staff: D
I am not sure if there was any pre-game discussions, but I never once saw any of the Space Coast Stadium staff engage any of the groups of kids or their day care/camp leaders. The staff are the hosts of the ballpark. They should offer to take the kids around the park, show them around, or at least see how they are doing. Maybe even asked them as a group how many are there for the first time. They did nothing as well.
PA Announcer: C-
The PA announcer is saved only because he did announce the kids’ groups, but did that so fast I barely could hear each specific name. It would have been nice if he made a big deal out of each group and made them feel special. Talk to the kids as a group. Teach them how to cheer. Start chants. And maybe only announce one day care/camp per inning. At least he acknowledged them, I guess.
It was Campers Day and not one kids’ song was played. I heard Jimmy Buffett and other traditional stadium songs. The only song the kids danced to was Gangnam Style. Not even the chicken dance. Music is tough, but when you have a crowd full of kids, maybe play the Spongebob Squarepants Theme Song or something else they might all know. After all, Spongebob lives in the water and so do Manatees.
Post game: F
Although my nephew’s day care left in the sixth inning as many of the kids were getting tired and bored, I didn’t see any kids from the other camps who made it to the end of the game running the bases after the game. That’s easy to do. Or run them from the center field wall to home plate. Too easy.
Overall experience: A
The only reason today’s trip to the ballpark gets an “A” despite all the poor grades for Space Coast Stadium, is because my little nephew said his visit to the ballpark was awesome. And because one of the players tossed me a game-used ball and I gave it to my nephew after the game.
However, as I wrote on twitter during the game, if you can’t keep a group of 5-year olds entertained for 2.5 hours you need to improve your in-game entertainment. The Manatees are not only selling baseball, they are selling an experience. That’s a Mark Cuban theory that I think even applies to Minor League Baseball.
We in the sports business don’t sell the game, we sell unique, emotional experiences. We are not in the business of selling basketball. We are in the business of selling fun. We are in the business of letting you escape. We are in the business of giving you a chance to create shared experiences.
Especially when kids are involved. Those kids are future fans. Those kids are the ones who will campaign their parents to come back. Even kids who are too young to follow the game can at least have a great experience.
My nephew is 5 years old and showing interest in baseball. I am sure we will be going to another game the next time I am in town. I only hope the Space Coast Stadium staff has their act together by then.