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Hoppers' fans still feel the love for field

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GREENSBORO — The Greensboro Grasshoppers have sold more than 3.6 million tickets in nine-plus seasons. Most people who bought those tickets have never seen the signs.

That’s by design.

The signs are small — about the size of an ordinary sheet of paper — and they’re hung at eye-level on doors leading from the “backstage” areas of NewBridge Bank Park out into the public areas of the private ballpark.

The text is simple, quaint and maybe even a little hokey:

“Every game is someone’s first game. Make it memorable.”

It’s a mission statement — a mantra, really — for Hoppers president and general manager Donald Moore, his full-time staff of 15 and the franchise’s 100-plus part-time employees.

“Everybody looks forward to opening day of the baseball season and thinks about making that night special,” Moore said. “The thing is, the other 69 games of the season are somebody’s opening day, too. We work here, we’re around it all the time and we see the same things every day. It would be easy to get used to it and take it all for granted. So that message is a reminder: What we do is special.”

Maybe that’s why in its 10th season, NewBridge Bank Park still feels, well, new.

It’s not, of course.

So far 346 young players have worn Hoppers uniforms, with 49 eventually reaching the major leagues for at least one day. They’ve played single games or doubleheaders on 630 days since April of 2005.

And the people have come. Greensboro’s 3.6 million attendance from 2005-2013 ranks second in the South Atlantic League. Over those same nine seasons, the Sally League’s other three North Carolina teams — Asheville Tourists, Hickory Crawdads and Kannapolis Intimidators — have drawn 3.8 million combined.

By any measure, the downtown ballpark is a success story. But why?

• • •

The Grasshoppers are an oddity among minor-league baseball franchises. Greensboro Baseball LLC, the club’s 70-member ownership group, owns the stadium and the land under it.

There are 188 major league-affiliated farm teams. There are just 11 privately owned minor league stadiums.

The stadium cost $22.6 million to build, financed by loans and the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation. Greensboro Baseball LLC leased the stadium from the Bryan Foundation for $50,000 per month until 2012, when it bought it outright.

Purchase price was a shade under $12.8 million, according to documents filed with the Guilford County Register of Deeds.

“The understanding all along was that when the team could afford it, we’d buy the stadium from the foundation,” Moore said. “We’ve got a little over eight acres and a great ballpark in a good part of downtown. That’s obviously worth a lot.”

But the value of private ownership goes beyond money, Moore said. He believes it has helped keep the stadium feeling new.

“If something breaks, or we have something that needs attention, we take care of it. Right away,” Moore said. “We don’t have to ask permission or go through a lot of red tape like a lot of (public) places do.

“It’s just like someone’s personal living situation. If they own their home, they’re a lot more apt to take care of it than if they rent someone else’s place. That’s true with stadiums, too. A lot of stadiums owned by somebody other than the team that’s there, quite frankly they don’t care as much. They’ll leave things up to the owner. They expect somebody else to pay for stuff.”

Private ownership means total control. It means the ballpark doesn’t become a political football or subject to government budget cuts in tough economic times.

But it also means there’s no business safety net.

“The negative is the financial stuff,” Moore said. “Most stadiums that are owned by municipalities charge teams significantly less in rent than what we pay in servicing the debt on our mortgage. Financially, ours is not necessarily a model you would draw up from a purely business standpoint.”

• • •

Make no mistake: The Greensboro Grasshoppers are a business.

But it’s a business born from civic pride. Investors pooled their resources and bought the franchise in 2000 while the team still played in aging Memorial Stadium, fearing an outside group would buy it and move it to another city.

“It was a big risk back then. I don’t think anybody expected to see a nickel back,” Moore said. “But from a civic standpoint, it felt like if we contribute and buy this team, we can keep minor league baseball here.”

No single shareholder owns more than 11 percent of the franchise, and there are “a lot of $5,000 interests,” Moore said. They’ve all received dividends each of the past nine years.

And they’ve done it while keeping ticket prices steady at $6 to $10 for years.

“It has been a conscious effort,” Moore said. “The beauty of this organization is that our ownership group is committed to keeping this as affordable as we can. It’s not all about money. That’s much different from most organizations, where every decision is made with ‘What are the financial ramifications of this?’ as the first question. In our case, it’s not. We obviously want to make money, and we do. But that’s not the main mission. And we’re proud of that.”

Ticket prices will almost certainly go up next season.

A change in North Carolina tax law will increase the state’s cut on ticket sales from 3 percent to 6.75 percent.

“Effectively, that’s a 125 percent increase in taxes,” Moore said. “Doing the math, it’s going to impact us negatively about $75,000 or $80,000. We’re going to have to do something. But you know what? I can’t think of one thing I pay the same price for in 2014 as I paid in 2005. It’s not going to be some ridiculous increase, but tickets will go up 50 cents or $1 apiece.”

• • •

Increase or not, chances are people will still come.

The Hoppers drew more than 406,000 fans in each of their first five years. The numbers dipped in 2010 —the year Winston-Salem’s new ballpark opened — but have remained steady, perhaps in large part because the park has remained nice.

Andy Haines, who managed the Hoppers to a league championship in 2011, has coached or managed five of the Miami Marlins six minor-league affiliates. Haines is manager of the Class-AAA New Orleans Zephyrs this year, and he has seen more than 70 professional ballparks from the inside.

“I’m biased, but Greensboro’s ballpark is one of my two or three favorites. It has everything you want,” Haines said. “If you were going to draw one up, that’s exactly how you’d set it up. It’s right downtown. The size is perfect; not too big or too small. There’s not a bad seat anywhere in the park. And the clubhouses and stuff for the players is really nice.

“The people are the difference. They really take a lot of pride and pay attention to the little details, and it shows. What separates them is you don’t see any deterioration anywhere. A ballpark gets a lot of use, but Greensboro’s never shows any wear and tear. Everything is clean. Everything is well-maintained. And you hear that from other teams when they come in: ‘Man, this place is nice.’”

The ballpark has stayed nice because of constant reinvestment.

The Hoppers installed a new sound system this year, replacing the 9-year-old speakers around the concourse. The franchise regularly replaces 40 to 50 seats per season.

Moore said a project on his radar is upkeep on “more than a mile of railing” around the seating bowl.

“You can’t just paint it. I guess you could, but it would look terrible,” Moore said. “It’s powder-coated in a factory setting, and you want to keep it looking good. The biggest maintenance concern we have right now is all the concrete. We’ve hired a company that’s sealing a lot of joints that over a period of time need attention. You want to prevent water seepage and deterioration.”

Then there’s technology. It changes. Quickly.

And it’s a staple of the fan experience.

“Our original scoreboard, at the time, was one of the nicest in the minor leagues,” Moore said. “Six years after that, we had to replace it or get left behind. A board is like a television set at home: You can keep it working, but after about five years the technology becomes obsolete. …

“We’ve got over $400,000 in that video board. You hope it will last and do its job. But you know you’re going to have to replace it at some point in the not-so-distant future.”

• • •

In that same not-so-distant future, a 90-unit apartment building will stand on the old North State Chevrolet lot over the left-field fence.

The neighborhood already has the new Fisher Park apartments, and the Deep Roots Market is a stone’s throw from there. More development is planned across Eugene Street.

Has the ballpark been a catalyst? Maybe. Maybe not. Moore said it’s a moot point.

“Often times there’s a big debate about, ‘OK, if we build a ballpark downtown, what kind of economic impact will it have?’” Moore said. “In virtually all those cases, that’s the debate to justify spending tax dollars on the facility. With us, that never came into play.

“We never promised anything. But the fact is we built the stadium and put it here, and anything that does happen is a plus. … It may have taken longer because of the recession, but I think in another few years it’s going to be really neat around here.”

In the meantime, NewBridge Bank Park will remain home to 70 scheduled minor league baseball games per season.

And every game will be opening day to someone. The signs say so.

Contact Jeff Mills at (336) 373-7024, and follow @JeffMillsNR on Twitter.

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