THUNDER BAY – Winning on the field may be priority No. 1 for the new Thunder Bay Border Cats ownership group.
But a close second is winning off the field.
Improving the fan experience is a top priority of the 22-member consortium, which late last year were handed the reins of the Northwoods League baseball team, the league having temporarily taken over the team from the previous U.S.-based ownership group.
Not only do spectators want a team that can compete on a nightly basis, they want to know they’re going to have a fun time at the ballpark, win or lose.
It’s time to change the culture, said newly installed team president David Valente, a fixture of the Border Cats front office for the club’s entire 16-year run.
“There have been so many years of negativity, and people saying this isn’t going to make it and it’s failing, but that’s not the case. It’s just been a lot of failed attempts,” Valente said on Saturday, during a fan meet-and-greet that introduced the ownership group, a collection that includes former Arizona Coyote owner Anthony LeBlanc, realtor Jack Mallon and his son Kelly, former Thunderwolves Hockey president Rory Cava, and Persian king Danny Nucci.
Valente said it’s the work being done now, with snow on the ground and baseball the furthest thing from most people’s minds, that will ensure the team has a successful 2019 campaign.
“It’s the sponsorships, it’s everything else. The saying they use throughout the league is you win or lose your season before you play your first game. That means you need to be in a position, before the first game starts, financially that you’re not cringing from game to game,” Valente said.
“If it’s raining, it’s not the end of the world. You can move on.”
With new manager Eric Vasquez, a veteran coach with Northwoods League experience guiding the Willmar Stingers in 2017, Valente said they plan to leave the baseball operations to him. They’ll focus on making improvements to the city owned Port Arthur Stadium and finding ways to entertain fans beyond the game going on in front of them.
“It’s all about the fan experience for us,” Valente said. “We want to get those people out to a game who have maybe been to a game five, six, eight years ago, when we were winning, back into the stadium and say, ‘You know, this is a great thing.’
“A lot of people over the years, we’ve heard, say baseball is boring, it’s like watching paint dry, things like that. It’s the experience, it’s being at the game, it’s the atmosphere. Music, the experience, it’s drives the fans’ experience.”
Sleeping Giant Brewery co-owner Matt Pearson is one of the ownership group and said having local investors is key to making it work.
These are people who care about their community and have the desire to make it work and keep the Cats in town for the long run.
“There is a feeling, if the team goes, we might be without a team forever,” Pearson said, calling the Border Cats a local institution.
“Involving local content as much as possible, whether it’s on the field, in the concession stand or who we hire is very important to the entire group. I’ve even heard talk around the table about having open tryouts for locals to actually come to do so,” Pearson said.
Fans David George Noonan and his wife Shannon Costigan have been long-time supporters even acting as host family, inviting players into their home, and said they’re glad to see new owners step up to save the franchise.
“The Thunder Bay Border Cats have been a huge part of our summer for quite a few years now,” Costigan said.
“It’s really important to us to be able to continue to do that.”
“It’s a wonderful atmosphere. It’s a lot of fun and we make a lot of friends this way. It’s just being part of the community, part of Thunder Bay,” Noonan said.