Big crowds raise the bar for South Bend Cubs
SOUTH BEND TRIBUNE / AL LESAR
Almost two months into the Minor League baseball season, there's still a buzz about the South Bend Cubs. Buzz? Heck, it's a big ol' swarm of bees.
Below .500? Doesn't matter. In the midst of a five-game losing streak? Big deal.
The fans still come.
Whether it's date night, a business outing, or an adventure for the kids, there's still plenty of juice around Four Winds Field.
In the short time that the Cubs have had their affiliation with the South Bend franchise, there have already been two all-time record crowds. Friday night's turnout of 7,786 is the new standard by which the rest of the South Bend attendance numbers will be judged.
They followed that up with 7,072 Saturday night. So… What do the Cubs do for an encore?
Team owner Andrew Berlin isn't taking any bows over the recent success.
'We're pleased, but we're never satisfied," Berlin said before the Cubs' 6-3 loss to Bowling Green Saturday night.
It's a mantra that has been front and center throughout the entire Berlin regime.
"We still have between 400,000 and 500,000 people who haven't been to the ballpark yet," Berlin said, referring to the Minor League baseball territory radius that stretches in a 45-mile radius of home plate. "We still have a ways to go."
The rubber will meet the road in the next couple weeks. The Cubs' biggest challenge will come when school’s out, the weather’s nice and there are mid-week games.
"The unknown for us is: What's that first Tuesday and Wednesday in mid-June going to be like; when school’s out," said club president Joe Hart.
Before there's a push to add a second deck to Four Winds Field, the Cubs must "crack the code," as Berlin puts it, to get fans out during the week.
"We have to be able to do those 7,000-plus crowds during the week," Berlin said. "If we can (get that turnout) on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, then we know we're on to something."
Until then, the work continues.
"(Seeing such large crowds) is exciting," Hart said. "I kinda have to rewind to 3 ½ years ago, my first year here. We knew we could make it better, by far; get the crowds and community excited again.
"I'm excited for the community because now it's an asset that the community is proud to have. And, it's not just South Bend, Granger and Mishawaka, either. There's a far greater range of people coming to the ballpark."
The most effective way to advertise is by word of mouth – a great experience for each one of those fans will result in a positive review for friends and family.
"The biggest thing for us to continue to provide a great experience for the fans," Hart said. "If the fans are having a great time, they're going to be our best promoters. They’re going to tell friends and family. They're going to spread the word and let people know that Four Winds Field is a great place to hang out.
"You don't have to be a baseball fan. You're always trying to reach people who aren't baseball fans. We’ve proven that we’ve got a lot of things to do, even if you're not a baseball fan."
While the number of ambassadors of the South Bend Cubs continue to grow with each packed house, Berlin and his staff refuse to become complacent.
'I can't say I'm surprised, but I’m absolutely thrilled," said Berlin. "I knew the demographic was primarily a Cubs demographic. The excitement around the Major League team has helped us. The Cubs are playing some pretty good baseball.
"The news that their (Minor League program) was rated No. 1, people knew they had really good talent. The South Bend Cubs have struggled a bit in the past couple weeks, but you're still seeing future Chicago Cubs players.
"Merchandising is up 850 percent over last year. Attendance is up 130 percent over last year. It's exciting, but we don't want to take it for granted. We don't want to take (fans') loyalty, their interest and their excitement for granted."
The buzz around the team has maintained its momentum.
The dog days of summer will be the true test.
STATE OF THE CUBS
- Performance Center: "It's world class," said South Bend Cubs owner Andrew Berlin. "We need to start advertising, promoting and marketing it. It's a building open to the public, not just on game days. We need to get the word out."
- Weekday attendance: "We're doing great on the weekends,” said Berlin. "We have to get more folks in the ballpark during the week. We have to crack the code to get folks into the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday games. We need to get the word out. There's some partying go on at that ballpark during the week."
- Concession lines: "I've always been very sensitive about lines," Berlin said. "I don't like people waiting in line for food or concessions. We've decided to spend the money to build a new kitchen. We're going to build another one that’s going to take a lot of time off the wait. We’re pulling the trigger on that during this season."
- Help wanted: "We're still looking for really good people who delight in serving other people,” Berlin said.
What has worked
- New grass field: "People have responded to our new grass field," Berlin said. “People love looking at the grass."
- Early entry: "We're opening the gates (on Fridays and Saturdays) two hours before the game (starts, compared to the usual one-hour before). You’re getting much more value for family entertainment."
- Tiki bar: “We're expanding the Tiki bar (in left field)," Berlin said. "It has been such an unmitigated success. We’re going to expand it by about 15 percent."
- Return to radio: "That was a really good move for us," Berlin said, noting that the South Bend franchise had gone several years without a play-by-play presence. (Broadcaster) Darin Pritchett has a great delivery, a great play-by-play guy. We've gotten a great response being back on the radio (WSBT)."
- Audio improvements: "It was a $200,000 investment in the production room – for the audio and video in the ballpark," Berlin said. "The high-definition cameras give a really good experience." The 60-second pre-game animation, which shows a pack of cubs running from Chicago to South Bend and heading into Four Winds Field, was very costly. Berlin said it took six animators on three continents to make that magic happen.
- Food choices: "Italian beef sandwiches, meatball submarines and soft pretzels have been really nice adds," Berlin said. "We're selling a lot of that now."