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VOL. 43 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 12, 2019

Sounds look to build on solid attendance stats

By Chip Cirillo

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New Nashville Sounds manager Jason Wood

The ever-increasing numbers indicate the Nashville Sounds must be doing something right.

The Sounds, entering their fifth season at First Tennessee Park in Germantown, are one of four minor league baseball teams to draw more than 600,000 fans to its home games last season.

“Every year we continue to get a little bit better,” Sounds general manager Adam Nuse says. “So, going into year five we’re pretty optimistic that between all the events that we’re going to have we could get over a million fans here at the ballpark.”

Nuse’s projection of 1 million fans includes upcoming special events and the Nashville Soccer Club, which plays most of its home games at First Tennessee Park.

The Sounds set a First Tennessee Park record with a crowd of 11,824 in a 4-3 exhibition win against their new parent club, the Texas Rangers, on March 24.

It was the first major league exhibition game in Nashville since 1999.

“Broke just about every record that we’ve had from a business standpoint on that day,” Nuse points out. “Great crowd, merchandise store was packed and the relationship really got kicked off in a good way.”

The Sounds were the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics 2015-18. They began their first season with the Rangers on April 4.

Nashville debuted new uniforms during the offseason, helping to make it a record day in the merchandise store at the exhibition game.

“Most of it kind of came with wanting to be a little bit fresher with our look,” Nuse adds. “I was really interested in the NBA rebrand, like the Atlanta Hawks have done such a good job. That really attracted that millennial generation.”

The Sounds’ attendance has increased every year except one in their new park:

• 2015: 565,548

• 2016: 504,060

• 2017: 593,679

• 2018: 603,135

Nashville ranked second last season in the Pacific Coast League with an average attendance of 8,741, including 20 sellouts. The Round Rock Express led the league, drawing 8,809 per game to its stadium about 20 miles north of Austin, Texas.

“It continues to climb, which is good,” Nuse says. “A lot of times the trend in minor league baseball is that attendance starts to decline a little bit and then will settle out somewhere. If things go well this year, we could be having almost 100,000 more people than we did the first year so things keep going in the right direction.”

Nuse says the Sounds’ goal is to be No. 1 in PCL attendance this season.

“I think when you look around the neighborhood of Germantown, it really shows the impact this ballpark has had not only on the team, but also for the community,” he says. “Everywhere you look now in Germantown there is a new apartment complex, there are new restaurants popping up and just a really fun vibe down here in Germantown.”

The park has been a centerpiece to Germantown’s resurgence.

The Sounds have tried to offer affordable tickets, some selling for as low as $10 per game. Senior and military family discounts are available.

“On Mondays, we have a ticket offer with Kroger so there’s a family of four pack where you get some food, drinks and tickets at a pretty discounted rate,” Nuse notes of the $44 package. “We try to keep an affordable option out there for families that want to come and enjoy it.”

Competing for the sports dollar is difficult in a city that also includes the Predators, Titans, professional soccer, college sports and special events such as the SEC basketball tournament and the NFL Draft.

“We recognize that we have to be a little bit different,” Nuse explains. “Fans don’t come out for the wins and losses like they probably do for the Preds and Titans and some of the other (teams), so we have to really create a great experience for everybody.”

Some sections of the park cater to young professionals who just want to spend a nice evening outside.

The Band Box in right field, an outdoor restaurant and bar, is the most popular section of the park.

“We have music cranked up, there are ping pong tables, there’s basketball, there’s putt-putt,” he says. “Every time you go out there, it seems like there’s some sort of celebrity hanging out there – a “Bachelor” contestant – or there’s a party within the party out there, for sure, and it’s great people watching, too.”

Other sections focus on the die-hard baseball fans.

“We have seats that are much closer to the action than any of our competition, and the play on the field is great,” Nuse adds. “Some of the seats are closer to home plate than the pitcher’s mound is, and those tickets are still pretty affordable.”

The Sounds plan to add new promotions and maintain old favorites as they enter their 42nd season.

“One of the ones a lot of people around here love is to bring their dogs to the park,” Nuse adds. “This year every Tuesday you get to bring your dogs to the park. A fun initiative, but it also raises money for dog shelters and dog charities in town. It’ll be Tail-Wagging Tuesday.”

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has named Nashville as one of six cities the league is considering for future expansion last summer.

“There’s a lot of talk about it right now and I think that’s hopefully a testament to what we’ve done and certainly the city of Nashville,” he points out. “I think the economics behind it are probably pretty tough. It’s not cheap to build a stadium, it’s not cheap to buy a Major League Baseball team and then all the other competition that’s out there right now.”

Drawing MLB fans to a 40,000-plus stadium for 82 home games would be challenging, but Nuse says Nashville is a supportive town – so who knows.

The Sounds have come a long way since Larry Schmittou started the team as a Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in 1978.

“I risked it all,” recalls Schmittou, who mortgaged his home to help pay for the Sounds’ first ballpark, Greer Stadium. “I always believed it would work or if I hadn’t it wouldn’t have worked.”

Schmittou grew up in Nashville, pitched for Cohn High School and coached Vanderbilt’s baseball team from 1968-78.

“Nashville didn’t really have much of anything back then and several other cities had brought baseball back: Chattanooga, Columbus and it had worked,” Schmittou recounts. “So, I firmly believed that it would work.”

Schmittou was named to lead the team following Larry Gilbert, who managed the defunct Nashville Vols minor league team 1939-48.

“We had every handicap in the world, which was build our own ballpark with our own money,” says Schmittou, who formed a group of investors with the help of country star Conway Twitty. “Once you get into something, you can’t get out. You just keep going.”

Schmittou said the easiest part was getting the team, but the hardest part was getting the park built.

“That was extremely difficult,” Schmittou adds. “I wasn’t a millionaire, and the park cost more than we thought it would. We built that park in one of the worst winters that Nashville has ever had.”

Many Nashville residents helped Schmittou’s group build the park, but the city didn’t offer much assistance.

“When we did it, the city wouldn’t do anything,” Schmittou adds. “The only thing they did was give us the long-term lease on some discarded land where they had four softball diamonds and Fort Negley. They kind of threw up a lot of roadblocks for us, and that was the only part that was bitter.”

Schmittou credits Twitty with saving baseball in Nashville. His name recognition helped attract investors, and he encouraged Schmittou every time he encountered a hurdle.

“You don’t have enough pages to write the different people that really pitched in and did something to get that park built,” he says.

With Nashville’s growth, Schmittou says an MLB team would do well here.

“If I were mayor, I’d be down there courting that guy at Tampa Bay every day,” Schmittou notes of Rays owner Stuart Sternberg. “Move your franchise up here. Nashville is as big as a Milwaukee or several other major league teams that’s now out there.”

He says Nashville could average 25,000 or 30,000 per game in order to be successful.

Schmittou, 78, doesn’t make it out to the new park as often as he’d like, but if it wasn’t for his early work it probably wouldn’t be there.

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