This spring, a lot of fanfare accompanied the announcement the Pit Spitters baseball team was coming to Traverse City. Billboards went up declaring, “New Team. New Fun.” Now free pocket schedules can be found at just about any gas station you stop at in northern Michigan. But for all these efforts and the team’s recent 18-game winning streak, fans have been slow to respond.
In their very first season, the Traverse City Pit Spitters have already accomplished what no other team in the history of their league has: they've won 18 games in a row.
Last week, Drew Nichols and his girlfriend Andrea Clack decided to go to a game, but not really because of that winning streak. They were interested in going to “Bark in the Park” night, so they could bring their two dogs George and Emmy.
Drew’s not a huge baseball fan but when he heard about “Bark in the Park” he was intrigued.
“We came for the big atmosphere of all the dogs,” he says.
The first-place Pit Spitters are trying to elbow their way into a market that’s already full of summer options for tourists and residents in northern Michigan. But the new ownership says they can do it with good baseball on the field and fun promotions off it. Promotions like “Bark in the Park” and “Dime Dogs.”
“People can bring a buck to the ballpark and get ten hotdogs,” says Mickey Graham, Pit Spitters general manager. “I mean that’s a crazy promotion, but fans really enjoy it.”
It goes back to the Pit Spitters belief that in order to attract a variety of fans, they have to field more than just a good baseball team. They have to create a fun experience for people who normally wouldn’t go to a ballgame.
So, they added more food options. There’s a new “Cherry Burger” that has cherry salsa from Cherry Republic on it. There’s more vendors in the concourse area, more local craft beers on tap like Right Brain Brewery and Shorts Brewery. Down the right field line, kids can see how fast they can pitch at a blow-up speed station. In-between innings, there’s new acts like movie trivia and Slip 'N Slide bowling to entertain fans. And if you bring a church bulletin to the game on Sundays, you get your ticket for half-price.
Mickey Graham says it’s about changing fans expectations from what they’re used to, and that can take a lot of time.
“It’s a rebrand not only with the team name but the experience, the baseball,” Graham says. “So there’s a lot for us to educate northern Michigan on.”
Tod and Colette Decker can be found at most Pit Spitters games. They were season ticket holders with the Beach Bums. Now they have season tickets with the Pit Spitters.
“The in-between innings has been great,” Tod says. “It’s just a refreshment.”
Colette says one of the things she noticed right away this season was that fans can eat peanuts at the ballpark.
“You can put your peanut shells on the ground, and it’s okay,” she says. “I’m not sure what a ballgame is without peanuts so that was very exciting for a lot of us that had been here.”
They’ve noticed a big difference in the level of play too. The Northwoods League where the Pit Spitters play is made up of high-level college players. Just this year, after the University of Michigan made its College World Series run, a couple of players from that team were picked up by Traverse City. The team has already clinched a spot in the playoffs in August.
The Traverse City Beach Bums used to compete in the Frontier League. It was made up of a lot of guys who had been drafted by Major League teams but then cut. Colette says the Pit Spitters players are hungrier to prove themselves.
“I think they have a fresh passion for the game because of where they are in their careers,” she says. “That really comes through with their play and their team enthusiasm.”
After 13 seasons Up North, the Beach Bums were sold last fall. Fan attendance had been declining for the past seven seasons, and the team had just come off its third-straight losing season.
When the Pit Spitters came to town, the new owners promised change. But despite all the winning on the field and engagement efforts off the field, fan attendance is still way down compared to the Beach Bums’ numbers last year.
With just 10 Pit Spitters home games left this season, average attendance is down to 1,339; that's about 1,000 fewer people per game than the Beach Bums brought in.
But General manager Mickey Graham isn’t sweating those low numbers just yet. He says he thinks it’s realistic to eventually get between 2,000 to 3,000 fans into the ballpark each night, maybe even more. But the rebranding effort to convince fans will just take time.
“The attendance has slowly been building,” Graham says. “It’s not where we want it to be yet, but we think it’s going to be a couple years before it really starts to take hold.”
More 18 game winning streaks and “Bark in the Park” nights just might help.