In the first two weeks of August, the Nashville Sounds have experienced a dry spell of biblical proportions. Yes, Music City's minor league baseball team has been wandering in the wilderness for what must seem like 40 days and 40 nights, and at press time their August win-loss record was a depressing 3-12. That puts them at 55-66 for the season. They're currently tied with Salt Lake City for the longest active losing streak in the Pacific Coast League.
You get the picture? Sounds bad.
At the same time, attendance figures at the team's home games are looking better than they have in a long time. Drawing an average crowd of 5,960 this summer, the Sounds organization expects to have sold 400,000 tickets by the end of the season, something they haven't done since 1993. They're a losing team with a winning bank account.
So what's the Sounds' secret to success?
Turns out they've got God on their side. That's right, the ball club can attribute its waxing popularity to a series of "Faith Nights," promotions that bring Christian groups and family values families to Greer Stadium for music, merchandise, fellowship, food, fireworks and, oh yeah, baseball.
"Minor league baseballit's becoming less about the game and more about the event," explains Brent High, the Sounds' church and youth programs manager. High's joba first-of-its-kind position, we're pretty sureis to get flocks of religious people, mostly youth groups, to visit a sounds game...er, event.
He does this by networking with Christian bigwigs from all over. "The best thing we dowe know church leaders like to eat, and eat a lot," he says. "So we went on a 32-town meat-and-three tour, met with over 500 different church leaders and took them to little hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop places for a meal. Then we follow up with those relationships throughout the year. We had six interns who worked on pretty much nothing but church groups."
Looks like the Bible-based bonding paid dividends. This summer, church groups have come from east and west, from north and south600 packs of crusading Christians in all, up from 335 bands of disciples last yearto root, root, root for the home team. And judging by the numbers, if they don't win, it really is OK.
That's partly because the Sounds give their faithful fans such cool souvenirs. At three of this summer's seven Faith Nights (note the biblically significant numbers), the first 2,000 fans through the gate get bobblehead doll versions of Old Testament celebrities. Heavyweights Moses and Samson have already been distributed, and on Aug. 27, folks can score a Noah bobblehead to complete the bizarre trinity. It beats free White Castle any day.
The cartoon-like Moses doll, which is the only one the Scene inspected in person (it was a birthday present), comes with not two, but three, stone tablets. Mo holds two grey placards, ostensibly with the Ten Commandments on them, and at his feet lies a rare third tablet upon which the heretofore undelivered eleventh commandment is inscribed: "Donelson Air Conditioning."
Sponsorship, then, is the name of the game.
And Brent High knows he's delivering his corporate patrons plenty of bang for their buck. He says the secret to the Sounds' success has been their ability to capture the ear of local Christian leaders while garnering national attention for their efforts. "Our corporate sponsorship dollars for Faith Night alone have approached six figures," the baseball player-turned-youth minister-turned-marketer says. "To be able to pitch a sponsor and say, we've been on ESPN, The 700 Club, USA Today and in the local mediathat's incredibly valuable."
The club made national news again recently with a promotion that utilized that time-tested winning combination: buckshot and the Bible. Or was it Christ and camouflage? Either way, the Sounds partnered with Spiritual Outdoor Adventures, a weekly television series whose mission is "to spread God's Word all over the world" while killing things. The first 4,000 fans through the gate last Friday night received a free copy of Heart of the Outdoors: The Bible for Sportsmen, camo-colored and hunting vest-sized, which includes color inserts that deliver deep theological exegeses.
"God has been hunting us, planning and arranging the circumstances to win our hearts," says one tract. Another describes (in vaguely homoerotic terms) the ritual "cleaning of the guns": the "climax...when we swab down all the metal parts with Hoppe's No. 9 until the whole room is filled with the smell, which makes us long to get back outdoors. Closing the gun safe door and turning the lock serves as a sort of Amen to this ritual." Yes, Heart of the Outdoors is a good companion for men who like praying while preying.
But is all this speaking in religious tongues over at Greer Stadium sincere, or is just lip service? After all, as the Sounds walk humbly with thy God, they keep their eyes firmly affixed on one thing: the bottom line. Local Christian churches are a "demographic." They represent "a significant portion of [the Sounds'] market share."
"In this area, in this time, we would really be doing the Sounds a disservice if we didn't go after this Christian market," says High. But make no mistake about it: it's not about the religionit's all about the Benjamins. "If Nashville was a predominantly Jewish or Muslim city, we'd be doing it differently."
Rabbi Ken Kanter of Brentwood's Congregation Micah understands what the Sounds are up to and isn't really offended. "It's not cynical; it's advertising," he says. "And I would say, with all due respect to my colleagues, we all use different methods to put bodies in the seats.... I'm not offended by the Sounds receiving money to give out an advertising gimmick that gets people into a church. I think the danger is when you do it enough that it's no longer a civic function and it becomes a religious function."
He may have a point there. For over a year now, the Sounds have very publicly expressed their desire to build a new stadium downtown on the west bank of the Cumberland River. And for over a year, Mayor Bill Purcell has been cool to the idea. Partly that's because the Sounds want $38.5 million in city-issued bonds, which they say they can repay, but Hizzoner, a doubting Thomas type, doesn't want to be on the hook. It can't look very good for the Sounds to be leading a religious movement with one hand while trying to become Nashville's darling baseball team with the other.
Mayoral aide Patrick Willard doesn't really have a problem with it. "My understanding is that this has been a successful marketing effort for them in attracting people to attend the games," he says. "I don't know that we've ever thought of it in terms of the Sounds being exclusionary because I think the Sounds want as many fans there as possible."
Brent High says he's heard the objection that the bobblehead dolls are crass, even idolatrous, but he's not a believer. "They're not meant to be serious and not meant to be idols," he says. Pointing out that little details on each figurine have religious significance, High says the dolls "are teaching tools as much as they're marketing tools for the Sounds.... If I could guess I bet Noah's honored to have a bobblehead with an umbrella hanging off his arm."
Apparently Jesus wouldn't be so honored. Because it would be too controversial, the team isn't passing out a Christ bobblehead. So for now, there seems to be some standard, however arbitrary or Christian-centric, of good taste. But pillar of salt bobbleheads or Adam and Eve bobbleheadswith bobble body partscan't be too far away.
That's because whatever puts fans in seatsbe it cheap beer, the San Diego Chicken or the Lord Jesus Christis fair game. (Actually, High says Centerfold Night and Satanists' Night are off-limits. We'll see.) But Rabbi Kanter points out the Sounds could broaden their appeal, and thus their market share by, deliberately broadening their tent. "If it's truly Faith Night, then they've got a wonderful opportunity...to strike a commitment for universalism and religious diversity," he says. "If faith night only includes one faith, that's a problem."
Maybe the problem is that no one goes to baseball games to watch baseball anymore.
On second thought, it could just be that the Sounds suck. Last Friday's Faith Night loss was the first of a four-game sweep by the Memphis Redbirds. "Everything's been very good about our Faith Nights except the way the team plays," says High.
Oh well, you can't expect the guy to turn water into wine. But the question is, can the Sounds be justified by faith alone?
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