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‘Take me Out to the Ballgame’: Burgeoning ballparks aim for home runs

With tournaments and events, owners seek to leave their mark on the Ozarks

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As players of all ages gear up for the spring season, two young ballpark organizations are vying for a bigger piece of the local baseball business pie. 

Both U.S. Baseball in Ozark and Ballparks of America in Branson enter their second full seasons this year, with tournament play leading the way.

Baseball is central to both organizations, where officials are seeking complementary revenue to make their parks relevant year-round.

In some ways, that means emulating the family-friendly atmosphere built by the Springfield Cardinals at Hammons Field. But in many ways, U.S. Baseball and Ballparks of America are branching out to stand out.

On the field
For U.S. Baseball, which renovated the long-vacant Price Cutter Park baseball stadium to launch in mid-2016, the Show-Me Collegiate League is perhaps the largest breadwinner. The four-team league is made up of college students across the United States. Queen City Crush, the league’s newly formed team affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes International, brings additional depth, said U.S. Baseball General Manager Mark Stratton. He said the league gives fans the chance to watch competitive baseball without traveling too far — another similarity to Hammons Field.

“It’s a championship facility,” he said of the Ozark ballpark, where U.S. Baseball owners Jeff Williams and his sister Wendi Taylor invested $2.5 million to renovate and outfit the venue now known as U.S. Baseball Park.

The Missouri State University Bears baseball team has practices at the park, and Stratton said the field can house games for the college, too, if it’s usual home of Hammons Field is tied up in Springfield. The Drury University Panthers play all of their home games at U.S. Baseball Park, and tournaments by CoxHealth, the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association, Premier Baseball and others are held there, as well.

Attracting young players and their families is where U.S. Baseball’s demographics intersect with that of Branson’s Ballparks of America. Both parks are seeking to capitalize on a U.S. youth sports market that’s now worth an estimated $15.3 billion, according to a September 2017 report from WinterGreen Research. According to the report, the youth sports market is nearly as large as the $14 billion National Football League, and it has grown 55 percent since 2010.

Hamilton Chang, CEO of the $20 million Ballparks of America at the former Red Roof Mall property, said the attraction is designed for youth baseball.

Chang, a trustee of the New Trier Township in Chicago who has a career in finance and risk management, and other investors from the Illinois metropolis entered into a lease agreement with the city requiring Ballparks of America to pay rent of $2,000 per acre and a percentage of gross receipts, with a cap of $100,000 annually, through June 30, 2049. Upon the completion of the agreement, a new lease would be renegotiated for the city-owned land, said Branson spokeswoman Melody Pettit.

Other early organizers included insurance and finance professionals Bradley Snider and Michael and Dennis Chookaszian, according to Springfield Business Journal archives. Ballparks of America’s general manager is Bobby Sutcliffe, brother of former Major League Baseball pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. Bobby Sutcliffe said CFO Craig Hutson is also an investor.

Five replica fields give players a taste of the real Wrigley Field in Chicago, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Fenway Park in Boston, Comerica Park in Detroit and Ebbets Field in New York City.

“When you take a look at our approval ratings on Facebook, for example, we have Major League Baseball players who weren’t paid a nickel saying this was a great experience for their kids,” Chang said.

Traveling players also stay on campus in team suites — there’s room for 40 teams — giving them a chance for better camaraderie and their parents time to see the sights in Branson.

U.S. Baseball’s season starts Feb. 27, followed by Ballparks of America on March 9.

Baseball business
The organizers have built the fields, but does that mean guests will come?

The statistics point to yes.

At U.S. Baseball, the number of events rose from 80 during its abbreviated inaugural year to 156 in 2017 with a projected 200-205 this year, Stratton said, noting beyond baseball, company functions and concerts featuring bands such as The Ozark Mountain Daredevils also are held at the park. He said total attendance was an estimated 75,000 last year and the goal is 100,000 this year.

In Branson, Ballparks of America hosted six events in 2016 and increased that number to 24 in 2017. This year, the park is expecting 32-35 events, said CFO Hutson. Hamilton declined to estimate attendance or sales, but he expects revenue to double this year.

U.S. Baseball co-owner and President Williams said he expects a 25-30 percent sales increase this year after a 50 percent boost in 2017. Officials with both parks declined to disclose revenues.

“We’re planning on continuing until we pack that thing out,” Williams said.

In both cases, the organizers are promising more eyes for their advertisers’ promotions.

At U.S. Baseball, sponsors that line the fields’ walls and dugouts include Price Cutter, KRBK, Heart of America Beverage Co., Elliott Lodging Ltd., Hiland Dairy, OakStar Bank and Casey’s General Stores Inc.

“Obviously, it’s all about sponsorships,” Stratton said.

Ballparks of America’s roster includes national companies Outdoor Cap Inc. and Gatorade, as well as local businesses such as The Track Family Fun Parks, Fritz’s Adventure, the Titanic Museum, Grand Oaks Hotel and Branson Bank.

Chang said Ballparks of America’s revenue is evenly split between registrations, sponsorships and partnership agreements where Ballparks of America is incentivized to send its guests to hotels and other attractions in the city.

“It’s pretty well spread out,” he said.

The park hosted international teams last year, as well, including those from South Korea, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Community impact
Local sponsors are one way the ballparks show commitment to the community, according to the organizers.

In Branson, Ballparks of America is already creating a substantial economic impact.

Estimates provided by Terra Alphonso, director of sports marketing and development for the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, show Ballparks of America’s 2017 economic impact was roughly $16.4 million. Within that figure, the ballpark resulted in $15.7 million in business sales and about $700,000 in local taxes, according to the data. It also directly or indirectly supported nearly 6,000 jobs, Alphonso said.

After buying the former Price Cutter Park from Chicago developer Horn Chen for $575,000, siblings Williams and Taylor donated the venue to the city of Ozark. Under the $600,000, 15-year lease-purchase agreement, Williams and Taylor owe the city $1 per year for the first five years and $60,000 every year for the remainder. Williams said the donation represented a win-win for U.S. Baseball and the city; Ozark gained ownership and a safeguard should improvements not be made, and U.S. Baseball’s renovation work was not subject to property tax.

“It was better for the city to do it this way,” he said. “For both of us to do right by each other, it was the right thing to do.”

Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers said while an economic impact study hasn’t been performed, anecdotally, U.S. Baseball has been a boon for the area.

“It’s more of a community betterment impact than an immediate economic impact,” Childers said.

With only a handful of hotels in the city of Ozark, Williams and Stratton said U.S. Baseball has a regional impact. Stratton said, for example, hotelier Gordon Elliott uses his sponsorship to showcase hotels in nearby Springfield and Branson.

“We’re trying to steal anything we can from the St. Louis and Kansas City markets and bring it to this area,” Williams said.

At Ballparks of America, Chang said the tourism market of Branson has some 18,000 hotels rooms, which is key for the attraction.

The city’s various attractions and retail outlets also are crucial to keep guests entertained.

As it gets baseball events nailed down, Chang said Ballparks of America is moving into the next stage with calls to fill its 100,000 square feet of commercial tenant space at the former mall.

“Then we will be able to shift our focus to adding partners who will come on to campus and be able to entertain the families and kids all week,” he said. “And also the 8.8 million other visitors in Branson.”

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