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“Tebowmania”?: Fireflies attendance rises almost 40% in second season

            Maybe it is a few star players, or the gorgeous atmosphere of Spirit Communications Park, or the pleasant weather Columbia has enjoyed this spring—but something has had Midlands residents flocking to the Fireflies games for the last eight weeks.  According to Fireflies team president John Katz, attendance has increased 36% from last year’s inaugural season—and they’ve still got fifteen weeks left this season.

            “It’s really been fantastic,” said Katz.  “The weather has been fairly cooperative, and we’ve been blessed this year with a very good team…For a brand new ball park in town, we’ve got a lot of things playing in our favor, and we’re really pleased with the results.”

            The increase in attendance makes the Fireflies one of the leading Minor League Baseball teams for ticket sales, and they have also seen a substantial increase in ticket sales for road games.

Photo by Jeff Blake.

            The team’s second season started out with a wave of momentum and excitement from fans, when the addition of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow as outfielder was announced.  Although rumors are now circulating that Tebow may move to another team later this season, it has not stopped masses of baseball fans from proudly sporting “Tebow 15” jerseys and wildly cheering on the celebrity during games.  Tebow hit his third home run of the season at Sunday evening’s home game against West Virginia Power.

            “He’s really helped this season, with brand recognition around the community,” acknowledged Abby Naas, the team’s vice-president of marketing.  “He’s also a phenomenal player, and the team adores him.  He’s really helped boost the morale of the other players.”

            Tebow is not the only star on Columbia’s team, however.  Right fielder Gene Cone is a beloved hometown hero, who played baseball at Spring Valley High School and the University of South Carolina before joining the Fireflies.  South Carolina sports enthusiasts also root loudly for Michael Paez, second baseman, who, before putting on a Fireflies jersey, led Coastal Carolina University to its first national championship.  And although he’s not a local, first baseman Dash Winningham is quickly becoming a fan favorite as well. 

Photo by Jeff Blake.

     The high attendance this season may also be attributed to the layout of Spirit Communications Park, which has family-friendly vendors and activities sprawled throughout its set-up.

            Naas said she reflects on her childhood in South Florida, where she grew up attending Marlins games.  She hopes to help build a captivating, explorative environment for children at Fireflies games, much like she remembers the baseball games she attended as a child.  She is especially fond of Spirit Communication Park’s kid zone, which features a bounce house, a giant slide, and a soccer kick game.  The stadium also has fireworks shows following their weekend games, and on Sunday nights the team players meet local families during autograph signings.  The Fireflies also host Wag-Out Wednesdays occasionally, where even the family dog can attend the game.

             “We strive to do a great job building a family atmosphere—a safe, fun, and enjoyable place,” said Naas.  “It’s like an updated version of a mall, with the kid zone, food, and team store.”

            Creating a memorable family experience has been an integral component of introducing the Fireflies to the community. “I go back to when I was five years old and first walked into Fenway Park with my dad—it’s one of those things you never forget,” said Katz.  “That type of memory stays with you a long time, whether you come to one game or seventy.”

           Katz said the team has had high attendance rates from young professionals, college students, and business crowds this season.  “As we continue to grow, we’re making changes based on feedback we’re getting from fans,” he said. So, as Naas points out, there is also an “adult playground” that features a full sit-down bar, ping-pong, and cornhole for older baseball fans to enjoy during the games.  The Fireflies also host Thirsty Thursdays each week, where both domestic and import beers are half priced.  

Photo by Jeff Blake.

            Both Katz and Naas also point out that many people wanted to visit the ballpark this year after visiting during the off-season, when Spirit Communications Park hosted holiday parties, community events, and fundraisers. In the off-season, the ballpark still had almost 46,000 visitors.  “We have a lot of buzz from the inaugural season and the off-season, and with Tim Tebow and also USC fans wanting to come see Gene Cone, I think the draw this year is just from a healthy mix of all those things,” explained Naas.

           This year, Spirit Communications Park and the Fireflies will host three major events at home.  The first is the South Atlantic All-Star Game on June 20, which Naas calls “a baseball game with all the future stars of Major League Baseball.”  “This game is all these best players at this level coming together, moving up, and advancing in their career,” she explained.

            The Fireflies also will have an Independence Day celebration and fireworks show at their July 3 home game against the Rome Braves.  But the biggest event they are anticipating is the August 21 game, also against Rome. 

            “I’m the most excited about that, because it’s during the total solar eclipse,” said Naas.  “It’s so unique.  Very few people get to experience seeing a solar eclipse in their lifetime, but we get to, just because of where we live.  And not only that, but we’re going to play baseball right in the middle of it.  It’s just not very often that something like this happens.”

            For a schedule of games and promotions, visit www.columbiafireflies.com.

Photo by Jeff Blake.

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