One look at the Chattanooga Lookouts roster tells you the people who are pushing attendance higher and higher at AT&T Field aren’t flocking to the downtown stadium for the local flavor of the players.
A look at where the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers finished in the Southern League’s first-half standings will tell you the people who show up at Dalton-Ringgold Night or for the club’s Hardee’s baseball card giveaway aren’t coming for the winning baseball.
But that’s OK with Lookouts president and general manager Rich Mozingo, who hopes the fans are coming for something else.
“I think every time you come out to the ballpark, you want the fans to have an ‘experience,’” he said. “Maybe it is just spending quality time with your family or coming out to the park with your buddies and enjoying a night of baseball or coming out with your son’s Little League team, but what you need to do to have a memorable night is to have an experience.
“It has to be something you remember and enjoy and can look back on with good memories and think, ‘Hey, we need to do that again.’”
Apparently it is working for the Lookouts.
The team is fourth in attendance among Southern League teams, with more than 150,000 total fans so far this season, an average of nearly 4,000 per game. The Lookouts should easily surpass 200,000 for the year, and the promotions department has more specialty nights and other draws scheduled for the rest of the season to keep fans coming back for more.
Engaging those in the crowd has been the big key to good numbers, Mozingo said.
“What I have seen from my staff and from our fans is that we are doing a good thing to get people involved during the game,” he said. “Whether it is one of the promotions, one of the races between innings or winning a prize from looking in your program, we are trying to get people more and more involved with the atmosphere. We are doing a better job of reaching out to individual communities as well.”
Unlike the nearby Rome Braves, who are so close to their parent club in Atlanta, the Lookouts don’t have that built-in fanbase to play off of and drive attendance.
In fact, there is even little in the way of the hometown pride angle.
Only one of the players on the current Chattanooga roster — pitcher Ethan Martin, a native of Toccoa, Ga. — has family within three states of the Lookouts, whose roster is mainly filled with players from Texas, California and Caribbean countries.
But to the fans at AT&T Field during a recent homestand against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the players on the field had little impact on why they were there.
“I have been coming to baseball games downtown since the 1970s,” Tonya Woodall said. “The baseball team is part of Chattanooga, and I love to come out and watch them play and cheer them on.”
Woodall grew up in Chattanooga and started going to games when Engel Stadium was the team’s home. She went to school at Kirkman Technical High School, which was located very near to where AT&T Field has stood for the past 13 years. She generally still attends 12 to 15 games a year, even though she misses the covered seating at Engel Stadium.
“The names change every year, but that isn’t what it is all about,” Woodall said. “I follow (the players) when they move up, but I come out to the ballpark for the games and the atmosphere and everything around it. I am a sports fan, and this is a pretty inexpensive way to enjoy baseball. It gets you out of the house, out at the park and is just a lot of fun.”
Winning and losing isn’t the concern of Mozingo and his staff. That is the domain of the parent Los Angeles franchise, but Mozingo thinks his fanbase is less concerned with wins and losses as well.
“I’ve said it 100 times that I would be surprised if 50 percent of the people who came to a game even knew who won the game,” Mozingo said. “But that isn’t really what we are selling. We are selling the entire thing.”
The Lookouts were 32-36 in the first half of the season, fourth out of five teams in the North division of the Southern League. Things have gotten off to a better start in the second half, with the Lookouts 6-3 and atop the North heading into Saturday night’s road game against the Mississippi Braves.
Luke Ozment accompanied his son’s recreation league all-star baseball team up from Ringgold and said for him and his boys, the winning and losing doesn’t matter at this level. Instead, he is carrying on family traditions.
“At this level, it is still all about the love of the game,” Ozment said. “(The boys) don’t really care who is playing. For me, it is a night where you can bring out the whole family for a fun experience. I played baseball through high school, and it is cool to watch the minor league young players, but seeing the kids and know this is their dream to one day play for a living, it is a cool thing. All these boys are getting to be better fans of the game.”
Ozment said one of the appeals of minor league baseball for him is that it provides a much more intimate setting than sitting in a stadium that holds 50,000 or more.
“I’ve been to Braves games and it is great to see the major leaguers, but here you are a lot closer to the field and the players are right in front of you,” he said. “It is fun to see the up-and-coming stars, and my boys love it. It brings the game back to me for how it was in the old days. I can remember going to minor league games with my dad, and it is something to share.”
Judy Johannes brought her 9-year-old grandson Corbin Reichstein to the game, and the youngster was sporting a baseball hat signed by nine of the Lookouts.
“It is great,” said Johannes, who lives on Lookout Mountain. “You can bring young kids in for free, and the food is reasonably priced and you can just enjoy the evening out. The players are wonderful when they walk out and they sign autographs. You can’t get that at the majors.”
Those are the kinds of things that bring a smile to Mozingo’s face.