Chicago Tribune / Eric Van Dril
Andrew Berlin purchased the South Bend Silver Hawks at a point when the franchise was in real trouble.
South Bend, which is a Low-A minor league baseball team, had only drawn 112,795 fans in 2011, according to www.milb.com. The team was close to bankruptcy when Berlin purchased it, he said recently, but the Glencoe resident transformed the franchise into the top team in minor league baseball in four years.
“Andrew ended up turning around a franchise that was on the cusp of actually leaving South Bend,” Ballpark Digest publisher Kevin Reichard said, “and instead made it into a community institution.”
Berlin did so slowly and steadily.
First, he hired quality employees — including Joe Hart, who is now in his fifth season as the team president — and implemented an attention to detail, customer service and quality control that helped the valuation of his company, Berlin Packaging, reach $1.8 billion in 2015.
South Bend’s attendance climbed to 189,575 in 2012. It reached 237,448 in 2013. The Silver Hawks, who were affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the time, drew 258,836 in 2014.
Then, in September of 2014, Berlin brought an iconic brand to South Bend when he landed an affiliation with the Chicago Cubs. The major league team switched its Low-A affiliation from Kane County to South Bend.
Berlin said. “We changed the field from artificial turf to natural grass. We hired … Roger Bossard of the White Sox, (whose) nickname is ‘The Sodfather.’ We installed a state-of-the-art irrigation and drainage system, and field, for about $750,000. Beyond that, we built this performance center, which is the gold standard in minor league baseball, fashioned after the (Under Armour) Performance Center that the Cubs have in Mesa, Arizona.”
Berlin continued: “Once we had that stuff on the planning board, we were able to present those ideas to whoever we could attract. We started with the Cubs. Thankfully, the Cubs said yes.”
As the performance center was being built in right field at Four Winds Field, the South Bend team elected to change its nickname, colors and logo. It rebranded itself as the South Bend Cubs.
The decision to do so was an obvious one, according to Berlin.
“There are a lot of minor league teams that do not take the brand of their major league affiliate for fear that one day they may lose the affiliation, and then they have to rebrand once again,” said Berlin, a minority investor in the Chicago Cubs. “But again, our goal is to attract the Cubs to the point where they’ll never want to leave.”
South Bend reached new heights in 2015.
The South Bend Cubs set a franchise-record in total attendance (347,678) and per-game attendance (5,039) last season. The team’s merchandise sales increased 700 percent thanks to the rebranding, Berlin said.
The South Bend Cubs also won the John H. Johnson President’s Award in 2015, which is the highest honor a franchise can receive in Minor League Baseball. Ballpark Digest named the South Bend Cubs its Team of the Year in 2015.
Berlin hopes to see continued improvement this year, he added. His goal for total attendance is 400,000 or more. A new party deck has been built on the performance center in right field. Berlin is also about to break ground on new apartments in left field and center field. He said he hopes they will be completed by the end of the 2017 season.
Another goal Berlin has for this season is to continue to refine the experience for the South Bend fans. In order to look for ways to improve his franchise, Berlin will sometimes disguise himself at the ballpark by wearing a hat and sunglasses and try to blend in.
“When I go to a game, in South Bend especially, I’ll often stand in the concession lines to see how they’re moving along,” Berlin said. “I’ll … do a little mystery shopping there, just to see how the service is. If I’m walking through the concourse or through the bathrooms and I see something on the floor, I’m cleaning up. I’m methodical (in) paying attention to the details.”
Eric Van Dril is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.