Vermont Expos General Manager C.J. Knudsen (left) says that plays well with fans, who enjoy the aura of an historic venue.

Play Ball

The Vermont Expos attract more than 3,000 fans to each home game in Burlington due in large part to the front office's effort to keep the audience entertained

by Sean Toussaint

On a warm June evening, under a pastel sky filled with the mesquite aroma of the barbecue, a family of four waits for tickets outside Centennial Field in Burlington to watch the Vermont Expos take on the Auburn Doubledays.

The father elicits cheers from his two young daughters with rides on his shoulders and promises of hot dogs and ice cream. "Who's excited to see Champ?" asks the father, referring to the Expos' popular mascot. "I am! I am!" the children shout.

Welcome to minor league baseball in Vermont, a summer pastime that is as much about entertainment, advertising and merchandising as it is about sports. "Obviously, we're a baseball team," Vermont Expos general manager C.J. Knudsen says, "but we're geared more toward entertainment than anything else. So when people come to the ballpark, it's our job to make sure they have a great time, and they're entertained, and hopefully that they want to come back."

Planning for that entertainment and a way to fund it takes place far away from the roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat, in a cramped, nondescript office on the ground floor of the Champlain Mill in Winooski. There, five full-time employees gather at the end of the season in September to figure out the schedule for the 38 home games that will be played almost a year later. The Vermont Expos play another 38 games on the road each year.

Centennial Field is the oldest minor league ballpark in use in the country.

In September and October, Knudsen and company put together proof of performance packages for each of their 130 or so advertisers and try to persuade them to resign with the organization for another year. November and December are slow months, Knudsen admits. While almost all of the revenue is generated in the summer, the Vermont Expos have a memorabilia shop open all year in the Champlain Mill and on its website.

Come January, the front office is preparing and selling advertising packages for billboards, promotional nights and other special events, and assistant general manager Mike Simpson starts putting together group sales, season tickets and mini-packages.

March to April is deadline time, with everyone making sure accounts, events and advertising plans are lined up. "A lot of people think we're sitting around in June and all of a sudden decide to put on a baseball game, but there is so much planning and work that goes into each season," Knudsen says.

Simpson is a testament to that statement. He considers himself a baseball fan, but says he spends so much time working with ticket holders and advertisers that he can name all of his clients but only a few players on the Vermont Expos roster. "Remembering the name of a business partner is so important," Simpson says. "I get picked on a little bit because I'm more familiar with our clients than the players on the field, but I'm proud of that fact. It's my job to make sure every account is being serviced and make sure they're getting what they paid for. I leave it up to the rest of the guys to be creative."

During the summer, the front office goes from planning ahead to dealing with the present. The organization has in-house concessions and ticket sales, so the payroll jumps to include 80 part-time employees during the season. Knudsen says he loves being at the ballpark, but he doesn't see as much of the game as he would like. One minute, he says, he's talking to a visiting manager; the next he's finding baseballs for the umpire; another, he's moving traffic around the parking lot.

Centennial Field has a capacity of 4,400. Under Knudsen, who's in his second year as general manager, the team has attracted an average of 3,300 fans per game. Since the team came to Burlington in 1994, almost 900,000 tickets have been sold. Knudsen expects to sell the millionth ticket at the 11th game of the 2002 season. "It's amazing we've been able to draw 3,300 fans a night, especially when you consider the size of the state is a little over 600,000 people," Knudsen says.

The Vermont Expos are one of three Single-A minor league baseball teams (the second lowest level in the four-tier minor leagues) under the major league Montreal Expos. Ray Pecor purchased the franchise after hearing Montreal was looking to move it from Jamestown, N.Y. Pecor gives the Montreal organization a place to try out players, and pays for their lodging and travel expenses. In return, Montreal gives Pecor a roster of players and a coaching staff. Pecor owns the Vermont Expos' logos and trademarks, so sales of the team's merchandise goes straight to his organization.

Vermont's last minor league baseball team, the Double-A Seattle Mariners, left town in 1989, after which Pecor says community members asked him to bring in a team. "The community really missed it, and I think I always wanted to own a baseball team," says Pecor, who owns the Lake Champlain Transit Co. "If minor league baseball wasn't here to begin with, I probably would never have brought it back.

"The only time you make money off a minor league baseball team is when you sell it. There are so many expenditures that you really can't make money off this. It's a love, more than anything else."

Pecor says Montreal wasn't worried about having a team in the second-least populated state in the nation and was excited to bring it closer to Canada. The N.Y. Penn League, with which the Vermont Expos are affiliated, had some reservations. The league was worried that Burlington might be too far to travel for most of the teams, which are based in southern New York and Massachusetts. It was also worried about the quality of Centennial Field, the oldest minor league ballpark in use in the country.

"That worry was taken care of when we renovated the field (in 1994)," Pecor says. "It took a great deal of money. In most instances, the city, state or county pays for all of that because it's good for the city to have a minor league baseball team and there is some income from sales tax. I knew that wasn't going to be the case with us. In the end, the state put up some money, and I had to put up the rest."

The University of Vermont, which owns the park, built the field in 1922. Knudsen says the Vermont Expos lease the field from UVM, pay for upkeep and are able to schedule their season before any other events at the stadium. One of the first steel stadiums built in the country, Centennial Field is split into three sections: reserved seating, which is the only area with chairs; the alcohol-free zone; and a section that allows drinking. The latter two sections are cement and avid fans recommend bringing a seat cushion for comfort.

While the Vermont Expos don't have to compete for fans against other minor league baseball teams, Knudsen says they're constantly competing against other forms of entertainment, whether it's the movies, the beach or dining out. "Even though it's a totally different event, we're in competition for that entertainment dollar. That's really what it comes down to."

The importance of that competition is written all over the walls of Knudsen's office. A print-out of Vermont's summer events that might affect attendance hangs on a bulletin board, next to a list of some of the bigger events Knudsen knows will affect turnout. Among them are the Champlain Valley Vermont Exposition, a NASCAR event in Loudon, N.H., the Burlington Chew Chew Fest and the first day of school.

Of course, weather plays a large role in luring fans to the ballpark. Because the N.Y. Penn League doesn't enforce makeup games for rain-outs, the Vermont Expos faces a major and unplanned loss of revenue when a game is canceled due to weather.

"When you're such a seasonal business, one year you could have a tremendous year the weather could be nice and you could have 4,000 people at every game. The next year you could have a rainy July and August and you have six or seven rain-outs that you can't make up. It's a great industry to be involved in, but it's also a risky industry because it is so weather-dependent."

This year's home opener was rained out, and "if there's one game that can't be rained out, it's the home opener," Knudsen says. The Vermont Expos were able to hold a doubleheader the following day, giving fans admittance to two games for the price of one.

Tickets, priced from $1 for children 12 and younger to $6 for reserved seating, don't account for much of the organization's revenue. The front office gives away many tickets to promote the team. Members of Champ's Kids Club, for example, pay $7 for a year membership, which includes Vermont Expos memorabilia, a chance to play on Centennial Field and free admittance to Monday night games. "It's a way for us to give back to the community," says Adrienne Wilson, director of public relations. "This way we get involved and bring people into the ballpark. We're getting our name out in a positive way, and we're still being recognized."

The most recognizable part of the Vermont Expos organization, Wilson says, is an 8-foot green sea monster named Champ. The team uses the mascot in the majority of the company's print advertising, as well as public appearances and special events. After the Vermont Expos' first season, the person who played Champ wanted to leave the organization and bring the rights of the character with him. After a short legal battle, the Vermont Expos retained rights to the mascot. "Champ really is the cornerstone of the organization," Knudsen says. "He's very identifiable and is able to stand out quite a bit. He brings fans into the seats without a doubt."

When the 26-year-old Knudsen returned to the Vermont Expos as assistant general manager in 1997 after working as an unpaid intern in 1995, he says he and then-general manager Kyle Bostwick would spend endless hours coming up with promotional ideas that weren't always implemented because of the lean size of the staff. Knudsen says Pecor was very receptive, and soon the team had a director of public relations and a head of sales and advertising.

"It's been great to see the organization grow and have some of these far-fetched ideas we had actually get done," Knudsen says. "The best thing about minor league baseball is anything you think of, you can pretty much do. The sky's the limit, whether it's the Windjammer Flip or Follies or the Vermont Teddy Bear Slingshot. The client is happy because they get to see their advertising dollar at work, and the fans like the promotions."

The Windjammer Hospitality Group has advertised with the Vermont Expos since 1994, Windjammer director of marketing Karen Wisehart says. Wisehart approaches the Vermont Expos with a budget and a vague idea of what the group would like to do and the Vermont Expos do the rest. This year, the Windjammer's advertising plan includes the between-inning promotion, one of the 75 billboards in the outfield, and a Halloween theme night with prizes for the best costumes.

"This is a way for us to target our audience most important, families like nothing else," Wisehart says. "The games and other promotions are a good way to have a captive audience. We are definitely getting the attention of 3,000 people a night; we're getting our name mentioned; and we're associated with the Vermont Expos."

Knudsen says the Vermont Expos gear a promotion around a company or find a company they think will make a good fit with an idea. It's tough to plan one of those promotional events in the middle of January, Knudsen says. "You have to be careful about how much money you spend on a special event. When we're putting one together, we're asking ourselves if it is going to bring in an additional 500 people or at least bring people back another time."

Knudsen graduated from Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington in 1992 and headed to Keene State College in New Hampshire. He dreamed of playing major league baseball, but when he realized his arm wasn't strong enough, he decided to make his way to the big leagues in the office. He majored in physical education with a concentration in sports management and a minor in business management. Three of Knudsen's front office coworkers started as interns, just like he did. "Baseball is a tough profession to break into," Knudsen says. "Getting that internship is how I got my foot in the door."

After graduating in 1996, he moved to Houston following his family after his father's transfer with IBM. When Bostwick became general manager in 1996, he called Knudsen and said he was accepting applications for the assistant manager position. In 1997, Knudsen moved into the Vermont Expos front office and within three years was promoted to general manager after Bostwick was promoted to vice president. "Never did I believe that at 25, I would be a G.M. of a professional baseball team. It's a dream come true."

Knudsen still has his eyes on the majors. He says he has to put his time in at the bottom before moving up the ladder, like Bostwick did, who is now general manager of the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx, another franchise owned by Pecor.

Pecor has his own dreams. "Where do I see this club going next? My dream is to move into a new stadium the teams with the new stadiums are the only ones who beat us in attendance. I've talked to a few people about it, and a lot of people support it, but nobody is sure where we should put it."

Tom Jackman

Originally published in August 2001 Business People-Vermont