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Hillsboro Hops confront post-honeymoon era
Team to add another scoreboard, more party decks and tweak prices
The Hillsboro Hops organization — a sparkling box-office success since its inception in 2013 — is entering a new phase in its franchise life.
Attendance was good at 3,470 a game for the 2016 season, the third highest in the eight-team Northwest League behind Vancouver, B.C., and Spokane — but crowds were down 10 percent from the previous year average of 3,774.
"We're no longer 'the brand new thing' in town,'" explained K.L. Wombacher, vice president and general manager. "We knew [the] honeymoon wasn't going to last forever and we're adjusting to that."
The 2016-vintage Hops excelled on the field, earning a South Division post-season playoff berth against Eugene, but were not the red hot ticket the 2105 club became after winning the NWL championship.
An increase in corporate sponsorships helped absorb the attendance dip. Corporate support grew 10 percent with Bridgeport/Columbia Distributors, Tuality Health Care, Les Schwab, Intel and Ron Tonkin on board.
Some skeptics scoffed in 2013 that minor league baseball wouldn't work in Hillsboro. But one reason the Hops have bloomed is their appeal has extended beyond the city. Nearly 70 percent of fans come from outside Hillsboro, with Beaverton, Tigard and Southwest Portland helping to drive that momentum.
Wombacher sees more growth in what he calls the "family oriented" neighborhoods of south Beaverton, the Cooper Mountain area, Bethany and Portland's west slope. But even more important than geography is demography.
"We have to drill down to our core market of families with kids between ages 4 and 15," said Wombacher. "And the key to that is understanding the difference between minor league and Major League fans."
Jack Cain knows something about that. Cain owned the last Single A team in the area, the circa 1995-2000 Portland Rockies, and later was a longtime executive for the AAA Portland Beavers.
"Most Major League fans just care about winning teams and they wouldn't be caught dead in a minor league park," Cain said, "but minor league fans like the family experience and like baseball at any level."
Wombacher emphasizes family, family and family in his game management. "Many of our fans may not remember who won the game a day later, but their kids will remember the Hops mascot, the entertainment between innings and the parents will remember the good and safe time their kids had," he said.
"The best compliment I got this season was a parent telling me that while driving home after a game, he looked in the rear-view mirror and saw how happy his kids were wearing Hop hats — [and] he knew he'd done his job as a Dad," Wombacher said. "Our main competition is whether families on a summer day choose us or a trip to the beach, the coast or a local park."
To make it easier to choose baseball, the Hops are adding more food sizzle. "We serve restaurant-quality food, with local vendors, locally crafted beers and vegetarian and gluten-free options," Wombacher said.
The team's marketing surveys show that women buy 49 percent of all Hops tickets and the club is mindful that many women might have higher food standards than the men in their lives. The team is dispatching its concession chef Dale Moore to the Arizona Diamondbacks' "culinary spring training" to saute and test with top Major League chefs to create more menu choices, noted Wombacher.
Spanish-speaking fans wanted
One hurdle to growth is finding the key to lure more Spanish-speaking fans. The Hops have done promotions with Centro Cultural de Washington County in Cornelius and sent left fielder Luis Veras to Hillsboro parks events, but more needs to be done, Wombacher said.
The team will add more pop to between-innings entertainment in 2017 with a second LED scoreboard boasting more entertainment features.
The club will also create another "party deck" to meet the booming demand for private company and group parties. "Our party decks sold out almost every night this past summer," Wombacher said.
Hillsboro taxpayers have a stake in all this, and when city of Hillsboro officials initiated a 20-year, $12 million bond to help build Ron Tonkin Field, they saw the Hops as a partial anchor tenant.
Ron Tonkin Field is part of the larger Gordon Faber Recreational Complex that includes the football-oriented Hillsboro Stadium and several adjacent youth-league baseball fields.
It will cost the city about $1,066,400 to operate the field this year. The biggest expenditure is $788,600 for the city's annual bond payment and the remainder, $297,800, is for operations and maintenance, said Mary Loftin, community resource manager for the City of Hillsboro's Park & Recreation Office.
The Hops' projected 2016 rent payment will be $506,862, a drop from $548, 304. The decrease is due to reduced ticket sales and parking revenue, and the Hops having slightly fewer home games, Loftin said.
While that $506,862 rent does not cover the city's total costs, advocates for the stadium complex never expected Ron Tonkin Field to be a net money maker, but instead, a promotional vehicle.
"They (the Hops) contribute in substantial ways that can be measured in more than dollars and cents," city councilor Steve Callaway, now Hillsboro's mayor-elect, told the Hillsboro Tribune last spring.
Whitney Wagoner, director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, said the Hops are a success for the community and the city.
"The Hops are the first team that people on the west side and Washington County can really call their own," said Wagoner, a 1992 graduate of Hillsboro High School. Moreover, she believes that if one prorates the city's annual $400,000 subsidy per Hillsboro resident, the extra $4 a year city residents pay is a great deal for added summer entertainment choices.
While gate receipts are down, the Hops may be looking at their best year ever in merchandizing sales with the holiday gift season under way.
"We're probably in the top 30 or 35 teams of all 160 minor leagues teams in the country in selling merchandise, even though we have a shorter season than most teams," Wombacher said.
What caught the organization by surprise was how the Hops mascot — a lime-green, button-cute vegetable named "Barley" — has become a cult figure among baseball memorabilia collectors nationwide. The team regularly sells its Barley apparel product line to baseball aficionados from Connecticut to California.
Wombacher declined to say how much Barley souvenir sales generate, other than saying "it's easily more than $50,000 annually."
But even the Barley boomlet cannot stave off pressure to raise ticket prices. For the first time in five years, ticket costs will go up, Wombacher said.
Field reserve seating will increase from $11 to $12. Field box seats will go from $14 to $16 and premium box seats will rise from $16 to $18. General admission outfield lawn seats will stay at $7.
The 2017 season schedule is already out and the Hops' home opener will be June 20 against an in-state rival, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.
The Hops won't know their player lineup until after the Arizona Diamondbacks spring training, although several stars from the 2016 season have been invited to spring training, including Tommy Ewald, Anfernee Grier, Luke Lowery and Mark Karaviotis.
Hops manager Shelley Duncan will get his 2017 assignment soon and could be with the Diamondbacks' AA and AAA teams that both have managerial openings.