Perhaps new lyrics should be crafted for the seventh-inning stretch at professional baseball games.

"Take me out to the ball game" just doesn't cut it anymore. In Utah, where three minor league franchises operate, "Take me out for some fun," might be more appropriate.

"We're not in the business of wins and losses," says Ogden Raptors president Dave Baggott. "We're in the business of entertainment."

Whether its postgame fireworks, Fat Elvis Night or Christmas in July, Baggott is a believer in the concept of putting on a show. IOC Bribery Night was a big hit last year and hopes are high that this summer's proposed French Judge's Night (where fans get up and switch sides of the stadium midway through the game) will be as well.

"It's just about having fun," says Baggott. "When people come and leave with a smile on their faces that makes me happy even if we lose 10-1."

In other words, he explains, it's entertainment and then, "by the way, we're playing a baseball game as well."

Putting the fans first, says Baggott, is why the Raptors are bucking a recent trend of declining attendance at the major and minor league levels. Ogden drew 109,360 people to home games last season — tops in the eight-team Pioneer League. Over 36 openings, the Raptors drew an average of 3,037 per game.

There's no secret to their success, insists Baggott.

"We put the fans first, that's why," says the 13-year baseball executive, who gained notoriety for making the old Salt Lake Trappers a box office success. "Come to one game, and if you don't come back, it's our fault."

It's a philosophy that is paying dividends in Ogden. After modest attendance increases in three years at makeshift Serge B. Simmons Field, the Raptors moved to brand new Lindquist Field in 1997. Attendance surged by nearly 1,000 people per game and, aside from one annual decline, has grown each season.

The same, however, cannot be said for the Salt Lake Stingers. They've seen attendance drop for seven consecutive years. An eighth is a real possibility with nine of the smallest crowds in franchise history already in the books for 2002. The low point came on April 23 when just 3,152 tickets were sold — that's more than 7,000 fewer than what the franchise averaged in its first season at Franklin Covey (Quest) Field in 1994.

"I think the economy has something to do with it," says Stingers general manager Dorsena Picknell. "And as wonderful and great as the Olympics were, so many people bought tickets and it affected everyone. There's only so many dollars to go around."

The Stingers aren't alone in losing business. The Jazz, Grizzlies and local college programs also suffered at the turnstiles. The ongoing war against terrorism and a tight job market have created an uncertain environment.

Picknell, though, believes the future is bright. She's convinced there's plenty of support for professional sports in Utah and points to an imminent resurgence.

"Over the next year, I think all sports teams will see an increase," says Picknell. "I'm hoping its only going to get bigger and better."

As for the Stingers, she's already seen some stabilization. The Triple-A teams season-ticket base held firm in the 2,800-3,000 range. Picknell attributes previous slides in renewals to I-15 reconstruction. The project took its toll on several downtown businesses, including the Stingers.

An affiliation change from the Minnesota Twins to the Disney-owned Anaheim Angels headlines the recovery effort. Increased promotions, plus a children's playground behind the outfield berm and a train for kids to ride during games, are also part of the plan.

"It's really all about entertainment and enjoyment," says Picknell. "You can't control the weather or the team you're sent, but you can control affordability and entertainment."

As such, the Stingers, who unlike the Raptors or Provo Angels begin play in April instead of June, are targeting fan support across the board. Being a Triple-A affiliate — and one that has never had a losing record — is a selling point to many patrons. Others come for corporate gatherings or promotions such as Disney Weekend.

"We want every demographic," says Picknell. "We want everyone to come."

Although baseball in Utah has faced increased competition for sports dollars with the arrival of the Utah Starzz, as well as professional soccer ventures, the economics of the game have remained viable. The most expensive ticket to a Stingers game, for example, is $8.

Another obstacle is summer itself. Recreational opportunities and children out of school provide additional choices for consumers.

"Yeah, there are more options for families than there were 20 years ago," says Baggott. "But, I still think it has something to do with bang for your buck."

Professional baseball, he adds, provide a viable product for both consumers and corporations to support their communities. And, bottom line, it's affordable.

And given the focus towards activity off the field, Baggott believes all three Utah baseball franchises are thriving.

The St. George Pioneerzz of the independent Western League folded last year for a variety of reasons, thus leaving Provo as the state's weakest remaining link in terms of attendance — drawing just 51,919 over 34 dates in its inaugural campaign last summer.

Even so, optimism abounds. The Angels hired general manager John Stein away from the Raptors and given his association with Baggott, improvement (or at least more creative marketing) is all but assured. Provo ranked fifth in the Pioneer League in terms of attendance despite a lack (because of LDS Church policy) of Sunday dates and forced early Monday starts at BYU's Miller Park.

Efforts are ongoing to eventually build a privately funded stadium for the team — thus, adding stability and brightening the outlook.


E-mail: dirk@desnews.com