New park, new affiliation deliver for Sounds

Friday, July 17, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 29
By Tom Wood

After nearly 40 years in Greer Stadium, Nashville Sounds fans are embracing First Tennessee Park. Average home attendance has swelled from 4,271 in 2014 to 7,735 through 42 games.

-- Photographs Courtesy Of Mike Strasinger / Nashville Sounds

Engagement. Wedding. Honeymoon. That pretty much describes the past year for general manager Garry Arthur and the Class AAA Sounds, who are proudly flashing a sparkling new diamond just north of downtown Nashville.

The Sounds are about two-thirds of the way through the home portion of their inaugural season at gleaming new First Tennessee Park, a $75 million state-of-the-art facility that seats 10,000.

This team was born in 1978 on the other side of town at Greer Stadium, still a functional facility but one that has seen better days.

Now the Sounds are light years away from there, in terms of amenities and fan experience.

Indeed, the numbers don’t lie in what a difference a year makes. Through 43 home games last season at Greer, the Sounds drew 183,663 fans for an average of 4,271 game. Through 43 home games this season, the Sounds have drawn 332,604, an average of 7,735.

But the new fascination with the Sounds runs deeper than that. They have also rebranded everything, from a new parent club (affiliating with the Oakland Athletics after years with the Milwaukee Brewers) to the logos (now a guitar pick) to the team mascot (the hot chicken Booster instead of the beloved jaguar Ozzie).

Arthur knows there’s a grace period with fans simply because of the newness of the facility. And the Sounds have struggled on the field this season,

“The honeymoon. How long will the honeymoon last? We have to maintain this level of service, we have to continue to provide as advertised—friendly, clean, safe, fun venue for families. If we slip, people are going to let us know,” says Arthur.

“It’s not that hard to get somebody to come to First Tennessee Park the first time, because the word is out there that this is a kind of splendid park in terms of design, that it’s pretty spectacular. But are we a one-hit wonder? ‘OK, I’ve seen it, now I don’t have to come back.’

A T-shirt toss gets the fans out of their seats.

-- Photographs Courtesy Of Mike Strasinger / Nashville Sounds

“I ran into one couple the other night that said, ‘We always went to Greer a couple of times a year because we love baseball.’ And they said this was their seventh game already this year and this was in May. That’s when you know you’ve got something going for you.”

Minor league baseball is a different animal from other professional and collegiate sports, whose attendance – up or down – is often a reflection of won/lost records.

If the team is doing well, crowds pour in. If the team is struggling, not so much.

But minor league rosters are controlled by the parent club and when hot AAA players get called up, it can affect how the team does on the field. So Arthur says he’s not trying to sell fans on winning.

“We sell an extension of their life, basically. They come here for fun,” Arthur explains. “What we’ve tried to do here (is) make this into a meeting place where people can feel good about their interaction with people they know and might get to meet.”

For the Sounds, that gathering place is the Band Box area out behind right field. Think a PG-rated Cheers in an outdoor setting.

“And that thing has been a phenomenal success,” he points out. “I’m sure if you go out there in the middle of the ballgame and ask people what the score is, they don’t know.

“And they don’t care and we don’t care if they don’t know the score. They’re having a good time,” Arthus adds.

“So for most, it’s having that sense of community. More and more, people want to feel they’re part of a community.

“And if you have a venue that is clean, affordable and safe, you can do that. It gives us a real chance for success.”