Lebanon County is situated in a unique geographic position. That is, in relation to minor league baseball.
So many choices, so little time.
Equidistant from Lancaster, Harrisburg and Reading, Lebanon has always been a big baseball town. But while Lebanon is too small to support its own minor league team, it is surrounded by cities which aren’t.
So exactly how popular is minor league baseball in Lebanon? How many local residents actually attend minor league games? When people from Lebanon County go to minor league games, where do they go? And exactly how important is the Lebanon market to the franchises in Reading, Harrisburg and Lancaster?
All tough questions, and no clear-cut answers.
“I would say of our fan base, anywhere from ten to 15 percent are from Lebanon,” said Mike Robinson, Director of Community Relations for the Reading Fightin’ Phils. “But we’re trying to increase it. We always feel like they should come here instead of going to Harrisburg. It’s not far at all.
“Those fans (in Lebanon) are real Phillies’ fans,” Robinson added. “It’s one of the bigger target markets we’re trying to hit, because where do they go? Do they want to go all the way to Harrisburg? It’s one of the areas we want to improve on.”
“I think it’s somewhere between three and five percent,” said Harrisburg Senators General Manager Randy Whitaker of the Lebanon contribution to his club’s overall fan base. “I wouldn’t know how to put a value on it. It is what it is. If we could expand it, that would be great. But I’m not sure how to do it.”
“I think the majority of our fan base is from right here in Lancaster County,” said Tony DeMarco, the Vice President of Fan Experience for the Lancaster Barnstormers. “But there is a big number of ticket-holders coming from Lebanon County everyday. I don’t know the percentage. But let me be very clear, Lebanon County is very important to us. I think we’re connected because of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. I think it’s in the mindset of both counties that we’re partnered.”
It may be that Harrisburg and Lancaster are the new kids on the block in the minds of some Lebanon County minor-league baseball enthusiasts. The Senators, the Class AA affiliate of the Washington Nationals, have been playing baseball in Harrisburg since 1987, while the Barnstormers, an independent franchise with no major league affiliation, are in Year Nine of their existence.
The lil’ Phils have been plying their wares in Reading since 1967 and have been affiliated with their parent organization in Philadelphia longer than any other minor league franchise. This is Phillies Country, and Lebanon County residents are both traditional and loyal.
“One of our biggest advantages is our proximity,” said Robinson. “The ease of getting here. There’s nothing right there in Lebanon. There’s no sports teams. If anything, they have the Hershey Bears.
“We appeal to families, from little toddlers to people over 80 years old,” said Robinson. “Generations and generations and generations have been to our ball park, and we want that tradition to continue. We appeal to everyone.”
“I would hope Lebanon County people think of us as home,” said DeMarco. “I see a lot of passionate sports fans from Lebanon who like what we have here. It’s a nice fit. There’s a natural sense of community, from the Maryland border to Schuylkill County.”
“Yeah, we would love to get more people from Lebanon to come to out games,” said Whitaker. “If we had Harrisburg saturated, we’d look to Lebanon. But we’re not done in our own backyard yet. What I would tell people is ‘give us a try.’ When they do, we think they’ll come back.”
None of the three surrounding minor league franchises does a lot of specific targeting of the Lebanon market. Lancaster does host a ‘Lebanon Night’ in association with the local school districts and Reading sponsors a ‘Lebanon Night’ in cooperation with the local chamber of commerce.
But for the most part, the three clubs focus on their own cities and hope their broad marketing strategies reach the fans in Lebanon.
“We just joined the Lebanon chamber of commerce last year, and those chamber nights are important because that’s bringing all the business people here,” said Robinson. “The people from Berks County take us for granted. The average person in Berks County will come out five or six times a year. Our target audience is an hour away from us, past Lebanon. We go as far south as Lancaster and as far east as Philadelphia.”
“Because we have such a broad fan base, we don’t focus on the smaller segments,” said Whitaker. “We have to focus on the broad market. When we do television commercials, that gets us exposure in Lebanon. We want to get the broad market. We do mass marketing, and that includes Lebanon.”
“We want to broaden our reach,” said DeMarco. “We don’t do a lot of advertising in Lebanon. We don’t do a lot of that stuff, but I wish we did. We don’t have the budget for it. We do a ‘Lebanon Night’ and we do a lot through the schools.”
Reading averages anywhere from 6,700 to 6,900 fans per night. Lancaster and Harrisburg pull in an average of 4,100 to 4,200 per home game. All offer an experience that goes well beyond just baseball.
“Obviously our fan base is very important,” said Robinson. “The game of baseball itself is kind of a dying breed in the city. Berks County has a strong baseball tradition and we’re considered a baseball town. Baseball can bring people together and it’s family affordable entertainment.
“We’re a feeder program for the majors,” Robinson continued. “You see future stars today here a the Fightin’ Phils. We want people to have a great time, and you don’t have to be a baseball fan to come out to the park.”
“We are a very Harrisburg-based team,” said Whitaker. “Half of our fan base is from the east shore and half of our fan base is from the west shore, and we draw from Dauphin, Franklin and Cumberland counties. But we do have some people from Lebanon coming to the games.
“That’s (the fan base) what we’re in business for,” added Whitaker. “We’ve got a side purpose of developing talent for the Nationals. But it’s about the fan base. We try to appeal to as many people as possible. We’re more than a baseball facility, we’re an entertainment facility.”
“It’s essential,” said DeMarco of his fan base. “There’s a number of people who follow everything we do. There are season ticket-holders who can tell you every name on the roster. We have people who love our players and follow our team closely.”