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Firm may run Mustangs
City council to consider contract on Tuesday

Sunday, November 11, 2012

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

City officials are proposing that a business — rather than one person — manage the Martinsville Mustangs baseball team next year.

Team Cole & Associates would take responsibility for “basically all expenses related to operating the team,” including day-to-day management, marketing, running concession stands, buying athletic supplies, selling tickets and selling advertising at Hooker Field, said Interim City Manager Leon Towarnicki.

By using Team Cole, the city’s net cost for sponsoring the Mustangs would be less than its cost this year, Towarnicki said. However, he declined to say how much the firm would charge the city before Martinsville City Council considers a proposed contract when it meets at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

All the city would have to do, Towarnicki said, is keep maintaining Hooker Field, such as by keeping the grass mowed regularly.

If the Mustangs were not there, the city would have to maintain the stadium anyway to keep it from falling into disrepair, he said.

This year, the Mustangs had the 24th highest per-game average attendance among more than 500 teams nationwide in more than 70 summer collegiate baseball leagues, the trade magazine Baseball Business has reported.

Yet the team never has turned a profit in its seven years. At home games, attendance and revenues — mostly from souvenir and concessions sales — dropped sharply this year.

The city has estimated its net cost for sponsoring the Mustangs this year at $67,513. That is up from last year’s net cost of $58,464. An actual cost for this year has not been figured because some expenses remain unsettled.

City officials have said the Mustangs are important to the area’s quality of life. Council members are committed to sponsoring the team through 2013 but say next year could be the team’s last if finances do not improve.

The city budgeted $79,885 to sponsor the team next year. Towarnicki said the city would pay Team Cole “substantially less.”

It would be the Gastonia, N.C.-based firm’s problem, essentially, if revenues did not meet or exceed expenses, he said.

If the firm can successfully manage the Mustangs and the city renews its contract in the future, the firm may charge the city less, he added.

Until now, the team has been overseen by individual general managers. The most recent manager, Dean Hennis, decided not to return next year.

“At certain times of the year,” Towarnicki said, “it takes more than one person” to oversee the team effectively.

An example he noted is home game nights when various people are needed to count money from ticket, concessions and souvenir sales and deposit it in the bank. He said he and city finance department employees frequently helped Hennis on those nights.

Officials have determined that “private management is probably the best option for the team to succeed,” Towarnicki said.

For the Mustangs, Team Cole would hire a general manager and a “director of fun,” said Jessie Cole, a managing partner in the firm. The latter is similar to an activities director, he indicated.

Interns also would be used, he said.

The Mustangs play in the Coastal Plain League. Team Cole has managed two of the league’s other teams, the Gastonia Grizzlies and Forest City Owls, successfully for the past several seasons, Towarnicki said.

Cole said the Gastonia team was in a similar situation to the Mustangs when the firm began managing it. Now, the Grizzlies are ranked sixth in attendance nationally and have better finances, he said.

Towarnicki got a letter from former Gastonia mayor Jennie Stultz, who he said “enthusiastically endorsed” Team Cole.

In the letter, Stultz said her city’s baseball team has become “a command performance in our community” under the firm’s leadership.

Cole said the key to making a college-league baseball team successful is making games “more of an entertainment experience” for ballpark visitors than just watching an athletic competition.

“We want to create an unbelievable show” at Hooker Field that, in terms of having a lot to see and do, creates a “circus-like atmosphere” with activities people would not ordinarily expects to see at a ball game, he said.

He mentioned, for example, a beauty pageant for grandmothers that was held at a Grizzlies game.

While there are many baseball fans, “there are many more people who just like to have fun,” Cole said, and his goal would be to lure them to Hooker Field.

If it starts managing the Mustangs, Team Cole would ask for input from area residents on what they want to see at Mustangs games, Cole said. It also would get involved in the local chamber of commerce and start to network with other businesses and organizations in the community, he said.

“We really believe in being involved in the community,” such as by raising money to benefit charities, he said.

The Martinsville Astros and Martinsville Phillies, two former teams that played at Hooker Field, also had management teams locally, Towarnicki recalled.

Earlier this year, the city issued a request for proposals from both public or private entities interested in managing the Mustangs. Team Cole’s proposal was the only response to the request, according to Towarnicki.

But the firm has “turned things around” for other teams, he said, and he is optimistic it can do so for the Mustangs.

“Martinsville looks like a tremendous opportunity” to increase the team’s popularity and improve its finances, Cole said.

 

 
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