By Cullen McIntyre
While fans may attend a Portland Sea Dogs game for nine innings of baseball, the front-office staff works behind the scenes to make sure the experience goes way beyond the game.
At the minor league level, baseball teams aren’t putting on the top-of-the-line product that Major League Baseball has to draw in thousands of fans to the 162-game-season. While the Sea Dogs currently have several of their major league affiliate Boston Red Sox’s top prospects, the team has found a way to draw in fans no matter the level of product on the field.
“I tell people you don’t have to like baseball to have a good time at a Sea Dogs game because there’s so much entertainment value,” said Chris Cameron, vice president of communications and fan experience for the Portland Sea Dogs.
Embracing the fan experience has made the Sea Dogs a part of the culture within Portland, ME where they have played baseball since 1994. More recently, the team has dove even deeper into the culture of their home city.
Cameron had seen the Fresno Grizzlies, Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, rebranded as the Fresno Tacos for a game and had a lot of success with fans. He brought the idea to Portland and the team had their first alternate identity night as the Maine Whoopie Pies in 2019, where the team wore jerseys and had whoopie pie related promotions.
“And every year we’ve added another one too with the Red Snappers and Bean Suppahs,” said Cameron. “It’s something different going on in the ballpark and gives the fans something to add to their collection.”
Promotional nights like the alternate identity games are only a fraction of the fan experience that goes on at Hadlock Field. In-game promotions, the fan-favorite YMCA song, and the most recognizable of the Sea Dogs: Slugger.
“He is the face of the organization,” said Tim Jorn, mascot coordinator and community relations of the Portland Sea Dogs.
The team’s mascot enters the stadium in the second inning, introduced to fans by the announcer as he rides down the warning track on the back of a golf cart before entering the crowd by the home dugout.
Slugger drives the entertainment for the team, leading the fans through the YMCA and putting on unique skits that include him doing splits, dancing, flipping, and even smashing pie in someone’s face.
“He’s the most marketable image of the team and throughout the years he’s gotten more popular,” said Jorn. “We get fans that come to games just to see him.”
The mascot has become a beloved member of not only the Sea Dogs community, but of the local Portland community as well. Slugger is the figure of the Strike Out Cancer in Kids program that supports Maine Children’s Cancer Program (MCCP) and he regularly makes visits to the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, even waving to them every home game after the YMCA as the hospital overlooks the field.
Each year, there is a Slugger Kid from the MCCP program that is the spokesperson for the program alongside Slugger and gets recognized at the Strike Out Cancer in Kids promotional game. “He builds a very close relationship with the kids there,” said Jorn.
“The players come and go, but Slugger is the face of the franchise,” said Cameron.
Along with the mascot, the promotional team for the Sea Dogs brings fans onto the field between innings to participate in games such as musical chairs or a lobster toss.
Madison Spencer, account executive of tickets sales with the Portland Sea Dogs, is one of the on-field hosts during the game.
“Once the fans are here, you have to entertain them,” said Spencer. “It’s not just a ‘we want you to come once and never again.’ We really want to create that relationship so they keep coming back.”
Spencer and the promotional team use the brief period of time between innings to make the most of the fan experience, making lasting impressions on the fans that participate.
“A lot of the fans come because they want to see the players play and they like baseball,” said Lauren Gausaway, account executive of ticket sales for the Portland Sea Dogs. “But a lot of people come because they want to come see Madison and me or whoever is hosting because they know we’re going to put on a good show.”
Both Spencer and Gausaway fully embrace their on-field roles while also being front office members that work full time in the ticket office.
“We all do a little bit of everything,” said Gausaway. “It’s such a team environment and it just makes it easier to come to work because you’re all helping each other.”
Another portion of the fan experience involves the video board in center field, where some of the promotions, including Slugger’s hidden cup game, plays between innings.
Chelsea Roemer, director of creative services for the Portland Sea Dogs, runs the video board throughout the game and also makes the content that is displayed on the board throughout the season.
“I enjoy people’s reactions,” said Roemer.
Some of her creations include various promotional videos and clips with Sea Dogs players.
“I think fan experience is really crucial just because a lot of people I’ve learned come to minor league baseball games don’t even like baseball,” she said.
For season ticket holder Craig Gray, that may not be the case.
“I became a season ticket holder in 2013 when I retired,” said Gray. “I had been a fan that went to as many games as I could since the inception of the team.”
Gray is a big follower of baseball and initially was drawn to the team to see the development side of the sport but fell in love with his local minor league team as he built relationships with the front office staff and members of the organization.
“In a short amount of time my interest started to move from being about the minor league players and what was going on with baseball to this extended family that I had at Hadlock,” he said.
The fan experience brought Gray into a community that was bigger than the sport happening on the field, and allowed him to feel welcomed at Hadlock Field.
“As a person with a disability, a wheelchair user and season ticket holder, this whole Sea Dogs organization treats me like family,” he said. “They value me as much as I value them.”
Gray is originally from Newport located in central Maine and attended college in Gorham just 10 miles outside of Portland. He and his wife, who he met in college, lived in Washington D.C., for some time before deciding to return home to Maine. As a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, Gray said he was drawn to the Sea Dogs and how the team is ingrained in his home state.
“It’s Hadlock and the Sea Dogs are about much more than the baseball team on the field,” he said.
A baseball fan at heart, Gray said he has come to embrace the culture at the Sea Dogs and he recognizes the importance of making the experience worthwhile for everyone involved.
“This is the kind of stuff keeping people happy and smiling whether or not they’re thinking about how the break on that slider was 11 inches to the rear foot like I’m thinking about it,” he said. “As long as they’re happy and having a good time, it permeates the culture.”