For the Staten Island Yankees, the timing could not be any more perfect.
Nostalgic Partners purchased the “Baby Bombers” — the Short Season Class-A affiliate of the New York Yankees — in 2012, and attendance at the ballpark continued to dip, dropping 44 percent from 2009 to 2013.
A year-and-a-half ago, the team hired Steven Violetta, a 30-year veteran of professional sports front offices, to take the reigns as its new CEO to improve attendance at Richmond County Bank Ballpark and increase the team’s visibility in the community. Violetta has helped to do that, “stopping the bleeding” with attendance, as he says, and building the fan base back to previous levels.
The CEO, who has worked in the front offices of the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League, and the San Diego Padres of Major League Baseball, was turned on to the position with the minor league Staten Island Yankees because of the opportunity it provided.
“First and foremost, I was really intrigued with what was happening here with the Wheel and the mall,” he said. “It looked like a really good ground-floor opportunity. I’ve been doing this since 1986, and you always look for ‘where can I go and have an impact? Where can I go and leverage the upside?’”
Violetta thought the development in the Yankees’ backyard of the North Shore is “huge.” He also fell in love with the ownership group of the team, and likes its vision.
“And it’s the Yankees and it’s New York, so you can’t ignore that,” he said.
While Violetta would like to see the Baby Bombers win championships in the New York-Penn League every year, he also realizes that Minor League Baseball is about more than wins and losses. It’s about having fun, growing attendance, seeking new avenues for revenue and being a better community partner.
“I think we’ve made good progress in some areas. Certainly we have some work to do yet, and we’re not as far along as we’ve hoped to be at the end of last year, (but) I think we’ve brought a whole new energy,” he said.
As a minor league team, the Staten Island Yankees have more flexibility in terms of promotions. Last year, for example, the team set the Guinness World Record for having the most people in one place wearing a fake mustache — an item the team handed out to the people who attended the game. This year, the team has promotional nights planned to attract more fans — Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame Night on Saturday, June 28; #beatBRKLYN Night on Friday, July 17, when the team takes on its heated rival, the Brooklyn Cyclones; and Game of Thrones Night on Saturday, Aug. 8, when the team will change its name for the game to the Staten Island Direwolves and wear unique jerseys that recognize the hit HBO series.
The team has also established unique sponsorships such as one with Williams Eye Works, which sponsors the umpire’s lineup.
Violetta said the team is doing a good job of boosting attendance at the 7,171-seat ballpark, but there are still challenges ahead.
“Like most teams in sports, Fridays and Saturdays are much more attractive…and we’re no different than the Detroit Red Wings. It’s those Tuesdays when you’re down to 2,000 (in attendance),” he said.
There are various ways to increase attendance, Violetta said, such as fun promotions, new concession offerings and boosting group ticket sales for outings of 20 or more people. But he realizes that for the organization to be truly successful not just on the field, it needs to expand its offerings at the ballpark.
Violetta is excited for the Wheel and outlets to open so the team can attract some of the huge influx of tourists projected to visit the new developments, but he also said the team is not waiting for them to open to make changes.
“One thing we can’t do is sit back and wait until the first quarter of 2017,” he said. “We need to be ramping up.”
In January, the Staten Island Yankees hired a full-time director-level employee to chase nothing but non-baseball related events. One of its largest such outings happened just last month — the Brewfest & Wing Showcase on May 2. The team also recently hosted an event where more than 2,000 people paid $30 each to participate in a live, human video game where teams solved puzzles to escape from a room.
The team plans to look into hosting everything from boxing matches to outdoor circuses, and needs to search for “24–7, 365 programming” for the ballpark in the off-season, which makes up most of the calendar since the team plays games for only four months out of the year.
“I think there’s a market here for private events — whether it’s corporate softball games, graduations, even bar mitzvahs and wedding rehearsals,” Violetta said.
In terms of baseball-related activity, the Staten Island Yankees are already beginning to ramp up for when the Wheel and outlets open. The organization recognizes the majority of visitors to the Wheel will take the Staten Island Ferry to get to the borough, and will have to walk right past the ballpark to get to their destination. As such, the team has re-opened its ticket window in right field now, so passersby will know it’s an available attraction by the time 2017 rolls around.
Inside the park, Violetta said the team is building up other parts of the ballpark with new attractions such as Craft Beer Central, which features five to six craft beer providers, and a barbecue stand that offers fare such as chicken and bacon in a waffle cone.
“We’re not waiting for the Wheel to get here,” he said. “We’re going to creep out down that right field line, adding things every year, so when 2017 gets here, it’s like a carnival midway.”
Violetta also said the team hopes to attract international visitors to a ballgame at the park, since they are baseball-crazed fans as well. The Yankees are working with the marketing team at the Wheel to get promotional material about the Staten Island Yankees out to prospective visitors.
The construction phase for the Wheel is going to provide a bit of a challenge for the team, Violetta said, especially since it is located in the direct line of the construction site. Parking for this season will be a challenge, so the team notified its season ticket holders of changes in parking last November, and began communicating the issue to the public about a month ago. The Yankees will also have parking ambassadors on site to help people get to the park from other lots.
The Wheel development team has assured the Yankees there will never be less than 850 parking spots available in the left-field lots every day, no matter the stage of construction. There are also other lots available on the other side of the Staten Island Museum. Violetta said the team has received wonderful cooperation from the city, the Wheel and other entities. Four parking lot owners have agreed to stay open late on game nights and cap parking prices at $8.
“Everybody that we’ve needed to help us put a parking plan together have been more than cooperative,” he said.
Ultimately, Violetta said his vision would be to get to the point where the team is attracting 5,500 to 6,000 people to every game, with the team running a profitable operation while having fun and “creating memories for people.”
Getting to that point, he said, will obviously take time, but with the right strategy, there is plenty of opportunity with the development on the North Shore.