Religion at the ballpark

More sports teams are trying faith nights as a marketing tool

August 08, 2006|By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | MATTHEW HAY BROWN,SUN REPORTER

HAGERSTOWN -- Already in his uniform an hour before game time, Brandon Nall sets up across from a snack counter behind the grandstand at Muncipal Stadium. The lanky relief pitcher for the hometown Suns holds a Bible in his right hand; a "What Would Jesus Do?" band encircles his left wrist. Fans are trickling in as he begins his testimony.

"God has given me the ability to throw a baseball," Nall, 24, a second-year pro from Dothan, Ala., says to the circle of spectators that has stopped to listen. "I don't take that for granted. I am who I am because God has a purpose for me. I'm going to glorify him by giving my all."

It's faith night at Municipal Stadium, where the Hagerstown Suns, a Class A affiliate of the New York Mets, are one of the growing number of professional sports teams experimenting with religious-themed marketing in the hope of reaching the churchgoing public.

Already, the Christian rock group Trinity FSG has given a free concert before the evening's South Atlantic League contest with the Lakewood, N.J., BlueClaws, a Phillies farm club. Representatives of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Baha'i faiths will throw out ceremonial first pitches, and Suns staff members will be asking religion trivia questions all night.

The Suns have previously appealed to fans with Feed Your Face Mondays and Thirsty Thursdays. They've hosted what was claimed to be the world's longest slip-and-slide this season and are laying plans for what is supposed to be the world's largest game of duck, duck, goose.

But this is a new type of promotion, aimed at attracting what organizers believe is a largely untapped audience.

"Minor league baseball, it's all about families," says C.J. Johnson, the Suns' senior director of marketing. "And obviously, faith is a big part of a lot of families. So it's kind of a natural tie-in."

This summer, the phenomenon hits the big leagues. Last month, the Atlanta Braves held the first of three planned faith days at Turner Field; 4,000 fans stayed after the game with the Florida Marlins to see a concert by Christian singer-songwriter Aaron Shust and hear the testimony of Cy Young Award winner John Smoltz.

Major League Soccer's D.C. United will host its first faith night Aug. 19, when the Colorado Rapids come to RFK Stadium. The Arizona Diamondbacks will hold a similar promotion later in the month.

Brent High, who packages faith-based promotions for professional sports franchises, says he is close to closing deals to stage events with teams from the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

"It constantly amazes us how this grows," says High, president of Third Coast Sports in Nashville, Tenn. "We think we're on just the tip of the iceberg."

The Suns are planning another faith night Friday, when they host the Greensboro, N.C., Grasshoppers at Municipal Stadium.

Using sport to promote religion is nothing new. Athletes such as miler Gil Dodds were among the celebrities that the young Rev. Billy Graham used to draw crowds to his first crusades in the 1940s and 1950s, and soon groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action were using sports to spread the gospel message.

But with faith nights, the reverse also is true: Religion is being used to promote sport. The approach was pioneered in the late 1990s by the Nashville Sounds, now the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

"We've always had some form of a targeted marketing plan towards churches," says Glenn Yeager, general manager of the Sounds. "At the beginning, you would put on your schedule Catholic night or Presbyterian night and just give churches of that denomination a reason to come to the ballpark together in hopes of selling large blocks of tickets. When it changed for us is one of our season ticket holders was also involved in the Christian music industry."

That fan, Third Coast Artists Agency President Mike Snider, suggested booking his acts at the ballpark on the nights when the Sounds were wooing church groups. The idea grew into faith night, which in church-rich greater Nashville boosted attendance at Sounds games by 50 percent.

Snider founded Third Coast Sports in 2002 to spread the concept. Last year, the firm produced 23 faith nights in 10 cities outside of Nashville; this year, it is planning 70 events in 44 markets.

Where Third Coast sees a chance to strengthen and grow the faith community, sports franchises see the opportunity to reach a new audience.

"Of all of our promotions, it's one where we really bring out some people that might not be baseball fans," Johnson says. "It gives them a reason to come out, and then, hopefully, they have a great time and they start coming to Suns games more often."

The promotion might not appeal to all. Some non-Christians might not appreciate happening upon a Christian message at the ballpark. Others might not want religion interfering with their baseball.

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