AMERICA’S PASTIME GETS 21ST CENTURY MAKEOVER

In their first season of new ownership, the Jacksonville Suns are attempting to increase attendance and interest in the team by appealing to young adults.

The tagline of one of the nation’s favorite games, “Baseball: America’s Pastime,” was used to herald the history and quality of what was then our favorite sport. In recent years, it’s more likely to be a half-hearted defense or light mocking of the hardball sport. No matter the reluctance of fans (including me) to accept the truth about the state of the game, baseball is no longer the nation’s pastime. At best, it has become America’s past-time.

Younger people just don’t see baseball as exciting or entertaining. With attention spans getting shorter, and other, more action-heavy sports rising in popularity, the game is finding itself lumped in with golf in the “boring” and “old people” categories of the sporting echelon. This plagues baseball not only on the professional level, but on the minor league level, too, and trickles down to college, high school and even neighborhood T-Ball leagues. Far fewer fans watch Gator baseball than Gator football. For this reason, the Jacksonville Suns are following in Washington Nationals’ right fielder Bryce Harper’s footsteps in an attempt to re-establish baseball as a fun, exciting sport for young Americans.

In 1984, Peter Bragan Sr. purchased the Suns, launching a golden era for baseball in the city. Under the Bragan family’s ownership, the Suns won six Southern League titles and hosted many future major league superstars, including Alex Rodriguez and Giancarlo Stanton. Bragan passed away in 2012, and in 2015 the family sold the team to Ken Babby, ending the long stretch of time that made the team local favorites.

As owner, Babby has quickly implemented a strategy to attract a younger audience. A brief review of the Suns’ promotional calendar reveals several events sure to engage younger imaginations. The range of these promotions attempts to appeal to 18-to-29-year-olds, as well as increase the enjoyment of the game for attendees in general.

The most readily noticeable promos involve social media. The organization is endeavoring to capitalize on its sizeable social media following by introducing occasions such as Swipe Right Nights. These are essentially the equivalent of singles nights, encouraging Tinder users to go to Suns games with the hope of finding one true love, or at least a one night stand.

Other new adventures at Bragan Field that await fans seem to emphasize the nostalgia factor that appeals to some millennials, in that they can relive the ’90s, which older baseball fans feel was just yesterday. With events like Super Nintendo Night and Keenan & Kel Night, team management is bringing a wave of ’80s and ’90s children to the ballpark, where they can reminisce  about the era, such as baseball not sucking. The team is also promoting some goofier nights, ranging from ’80s Prom Night to Get Leíd Night (July 14) and — my personal favorite — Serious Mulletude Night (July 30).

Though perhaps not as attention-grabbing as mullets or Top Gun Turns 30 (June 16), the most positive new promotion may be the Jax Jams Series, in which the ballpark plays music by local acts and artists before and during the games on several Monday night home games.

Despite these changes, those who love the Suns’ traditional family atmosphere shouldn’t be alarmed. The organization is keeping many fan favorite promotions from the Bragan era, like Family Fireworks Night and many military support nights. The main goal of the front office is to attract enough attention to have that evolve into loyal attendance and support, and inspire a newfound love of the game of baseball all over Northeast Florida. And, as Babe Ruth urged, the Suns’ new ownership isn’t letting the fear of striking out keep it from playing the game.

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