Cedar Rapids Kernels adapt to new affiliate, trends

With the Twins on board, game is on to reverse an attendance slide

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In the dead of winter, the Cedar Rapids Kernels don't have any players assigned for the upcoming season.  Yet walking around the bowels of Veterans Memorial Stadium, the emptiness of the locker and equipment rooms stands out.

Hardly any bats or baseballs can be found, as the Kernels are in the midst of an affiliate switch from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the Minnesota Twins.  The Kernels made the move after serving as a Class-A affiliate of the Angels for 20 years.

Kernels General Manager Doug Nelson said it's standard operating procedure for a departing parent club to haul the team's supplies.  Nelson said he expects a truck from the Twins to arrive in late March at the stadium's loading dock, complete with bats, balls and the necessary items to keep a team together.

Outside the locker room, the transition to the Twins is apparent in the signs.

"We are working hard on changing that 'A' to a 'Twins' logo except for a couple of signs that we have to wait for the warmer weather for," Nelson said.

Blame It on the Weather

Will this switch be a jolt to reverse the team's sliding attendance in recent years?

In April 2002, the new stadium opened as the fans followed, with the Kernels drawing an average attendance of 2,841.

But as the newness of the stadium wore off, the turnstiles also tailed off with the 2012 average bottoming.  Last year's average of 2,320 put the Kernels at 13th in the 16-team Midwest League, ahead of only smaller cities Clinton, Burlington and Beloit, Wis.

Nelson said a primary culprit for last year's drop was from the skies.

"We can have the best promotion and a winning team on the field, but if it's a 50-degree game-time temperature with a crosswind blowing across the field in the stadium, we're going to struggle to sell tickets," said Nelson.

The 14 people who run the Cedar Rapids Ball Club LLC, the team's ownership group, know the focus for any successful minor-league operation is hardly the play on the field.  These teams sell the atmosphere of a summer evening under the sunshine.

It is that selling point that determines whether a team such as the Kernels meets the bottom line each year.

Nelson said the team's revenue comes from about four primary sources, with three of them during each of the 70 home games.

Game Day Events - Nelson said money comes "about equally" from tickets, concessions and sponsorship opportunities.  The team is in the push for ticket sales and placing names on billboards throughout the stadium.

Once the season starts on April 4,  the focus then shifts to the game operations, often a 15-hour day, Nelson said.

Off-Day Events - This is a relatively new revenue stream for the Kernels.  Nelson said the stadium held 80 non-Kernels events in 2012, from local high school and college baseball to concerts and MMA fights.  Nelson said these events also make up about 25 percent of the team's revenue.

Who Pays?

As for where the revenue goes, Nelson said there is no difference between the Angels and the Twins as a uniform agreement is in place regarding financial terms between major-league clubs and their affiliates.

Nelson said the Twins pay for player salaries, from the million-dollar draft picks to the player who signed for the $1,000 minimum, as well as two-thirds of the cost of the bats and balls.  At least, whenever the bats and balls do arrive.

The larger bills for the Kernels include $300,000 annually in rent to the city of Cedar Rapids.  Nelson said stadium maintenance and repairs can run "about $250,000" a year, but the city can cover about one-third of that cost.

Other expenses include 12 full-time team employees, and 7 percent of each Kernels's ticket sold is earmarked for Major League Baseball.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels center fielder Andy Workman connects on a pitch during the game against the Clinton LumberKings at Veterans Memorial Stadium in September. The Kernels are in the midst of an affiliate switch from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the Minnesota Twins. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Twenty years ago, a renaissance hit minor-league baseball with teams building attendance.  Yet with the effects of a recession still lingering, club executives do stay in contact with other teams and leagues to find promotions and attractions that work.

Nelson said one new aspect could be a welcome surprise for fans the moment they walk in the door.

"You're going to be handed a free roster and a free program because we learned from our other affiliates that they started doing this, and the reaction from the fans was fantastic," he noted.

For a team with no players, no bats and a new affiliate, the optimism still abounds at Veterans Memorial Stadium.  Nelson said the Kernels's 2013 season ticket sales already have reached last year's level, and he attributes part of that to having the nearby Twins as a parent club.

Now his in-season plans hinge on adding attractive wrinkles to the simple formula for what works.

"The old adage," Nelson said, "is good weather, cold beverages and fireworks are the secret to drawing attention in baseball." 

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