During a recent game, Columbia Fireflies fans cheered the minor league baseball team to victory. Some did so while sipping wine and painting stemmed glassware.
That Ladies’ Night promotion, which included a wine tasting and a wine glass painting class, provided one example of the creative ways the Fireflies have tried to draw fans in their first season in Columbia. Such efforts have clearly paid off, as the South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Mets set a single-season attendance record for a Columbia professional baseball organization after just 40 home games.
On Tuesday night, fan No. 156,922 passed through the gates at Spirit Communications Park, breaking the previous mark of 156,921 who attended Capital City Bombers games at Capital City Stadium in 1996. The Fireflies are Columbia’s first professional baseball team since the Bombers left town for Greenville in 2004.
“There’s always a reason for someone to come out here, and it doesn’t have to be the baseball,” said Fireflies President John Katz. “Half of fans don’t even watch the game. They’re socializing, they’re out at the bar in centerfield, they’re mingling. We’re drawing for entertainment and experience. The baseball is part of what we do. The baseball is the magnet or the beacon that pulls people together, but the experience keeps them coming back.”
Spirit Communications Park, the $37 million centerpiece of the massive Bull Street redevelopment project with state-of-the-art amenities, luxury suites and craft beer selections, is far cry from serviceable Capital City Stadium. But setting an attendance record with 30 home games left is a feat that goes beyond obvious aesthetic differences.
“I’ve been really, really pleased with how this community has come out and supported the team,” Katz said. “You can come to 14 different games and sit in 14 different locations and have a different experience each and every night.”
The Fireflies drew a sellout crowd of 9,077 for their April 14 home opener, then topped that with a record 9,228 on the Fourth of July. An additional 6,062 attended “Purple Game, Purple Game,” the Fireflies’ tribute to Prince, on June 9, when Katz and his game-day staff donned raspberry berets.
“That, to me, speaks volumes about how this community has come out (and) fallen in love with this facility and the experience,” Katz said. “Our group does such a good job entertaining, regardless of the size of the crowd, that when someone comes for the first time, it feels like opening night to them.”
Three months of practice has streamlined the fan experience, Katz said. Parking patterns are clearer, traffic flow is smoother, technical issues with the team’s point of sale system have been remedied, and fans move more quickly through shorter concession lines.
That rapid learning curve, and the potential promised by a 20-year, billion-dollar buildout plan for the mixed-use Commons at BullStreet that includes 414,000 square feet of retail space along with apartments and a hotel, has Katz and Columbia officials excited about the Fireflies’ future.
“This is classic, family-friendly entertainment,” Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin said in a release announcing the attendance record. “To see the people of Columbia respond so overwhelming to this – it’s great for our city.”
Artist renderings of the Bull Street project are at Katz’s fingertips on his desk. Benjamin said last month that additional construction could begin later this summer
“We’ll bring in, let’s say, three to four hundred thousand people, between baseball and special events, over the course of year one with almost nothing on the site,” Katz said. “So what will it be like two to three years from now, when you’ve got 1,000 people living here, several thousand people working here, and people coming here as a retail and entertainment destination?”
The Fireflies’ marketing team is working to keep the momentum going. There are 10 more fireworks shows and four more Thirsty Thursdays, featuring discounted beer prices, on the calendar, and plans for a Soccer Night to coincide with the August opening of England’s Premier League — Katz is a huge Tottenham Hotspur fan — are afoot. The park, which is open to the public, will also play host to events after the baseball season has ended, Katz said.
“We’ve got some great opportunities to continue to do what we’ve been doing and to try new things,” Katz said. “Once people have been to games, the experience speaks for itself. It’s such a laid-back, fun, energetic environment.”