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Creating that Minor League Feeling

A Georgia high school baseball program uses different forms of broadcast technology to boost teamwork and sponsorship revenues.

by Danielle Catalano


Scott Harden is having a busy year. The first year head baseball coach at Ridgeland High School (Ga.) guided his team to a 19-7 record, with the Panthers making it to the state's 7-AAAA regional playoffs. During the last weekend in June, the Panthers will host 33 teams from four different countries in its 2nd Annual Panthers Wood Bat Classic and introduce its new Webcasting initiative during the 120-plus game event. Following the Classic, the team will participate in summer leagues and two community projects (hosting a free coaches clinic and youth recreation camp) and then beginning conditioning sessions for fall baseball.

"Around here, baseball is sort of an all-year sport," says Harden, who is a Ridgeland alum with seven years overall coaching experience, including being a Panther assistant coach. "So, we do what we can with the community and kids—all the students at Ridgeland, not just the players—to promote the game and the facilities in this area."

Telecasting and Webcasting are two such promotions the Panthers and the Dugout Club (the team's non-profit booster club) worked nearly full-time developing since the previous season.

"The original idea came from former Coach Mike Brown about two years ago when we saw how other organizations were using technology to keep fans' interest," Harden says. "The Chattanooga Lookouts is our minor league team here, and we really liked how they set up telecasting throughout their ballpark so that you don't have to worry about missing a pitch if you want to leave your seat before the third out.

"We wanted to recreate that same level of excitement for our fans, and first thought of using a Jumbtron," continues Harden, "but that would cost $500,000, and was out of our ballpark, so to speak, and that's where the idea of telecasting came up."

BALLPARK AT RIDGELAND
The Panthers play at the Ballpark at Ridgeland, a "quality" facility, says Harden. It is designed to resemble the stadiums of baseball's golden era and includes a press box, television screens posted around the concessions area (with replay features), a well-maintained natural turf, major-league style dugouts, indoor throwing cages, locker rooms, and a fully furnished students lounge that is used as a digital video analysis room during the fall for pitchers, catchers, and coaches to breakdown opponents' swings, scoring situations, and pitching counts. Once the season starts, the lounge is dedicated to game-day film studying.

"When freshmen step into the park for the first time, there's definitely that 'wow factor'," Harden says. "But as coaches, we have to remind them that the hard work that went into this facility can't be taken for granted. When we see it is, we move practice to a different site with a field that's not in as good a shape as ours and with no amenities. They get the point real quick."

Ridgeland's Dugout Club helped make the facility what it is today. Since 1995, the volunteers have organized fundraisers to pay for the baseball program's "wish list". Some of those fundraisers include coordinating the team's concession stands, managing the parking lot for the next-door school football stadium, organizing meet-and-greet dinners, and soliciting sponsorships.

"To my knowledge, we have yet to not have something granted on our wish list," Harden says. "For that, we are grateful because those efforts allow the coaching staff to achieve two goals: prepare our students to play baseball at the college level and to have the students understand good citizenship."

Hence, this summer's free coaches clinic and youth camp as well as the annual Christmas youth camp, which are open to all in the greater Chattanooga area, says Harden. "We have the facility, so why not? And it gets our players involved with the younger kids, helping them understand the development of the game and acting more professionally."

In addition to these community projects, the facility is used during the booster club's coat and clothes drives, and each Panthers player volunteers his time with several non-profit groups throughout the school year, including Christmas for Kids, the Forgotten Child Fund, and VFWs, as well as reading to elementary students throughout the school year.

GURU ADVANTAGE
Toward the end of Harden's last season as an assistant coach, several parents made a request to the Panthers' wish list: Webcast the games. "We have parents who are on the road a lot with business and they're upset they can't watch their kids play," Harden says. "One father suggested using some of the telecasting technology to stream games."

Another parent, whom Harden describes as a "guru with Web technology" and sits on the school board, helped the team test the new media and developed ways on how to incorporate advertising during each Webcast. In the meantime, the booster club found that sponsors were very interested in the greater audiences the Webcast would reach. To accommodate the demands, each game most likely will have its own sponsor promoted during inning changes. The format, though, is still in the trial phase, says Harden.

Since the stream is a live broadcast of high school athletes, permission from Ridgeland's school board was needed before any testing could begin. While showing how the baseball program would benefit from using the new technology, Harden wanted to show the school board how the district would benefit at a larger scale. To do this, the head coach approached the high school's construction and technology departments seeking support of the project, in and outside the classrooms.

"At Ridgeland, we really push students to gain real-life experiences, and we have a great opportunity for students to earn that right at the Ballpark." Harden says. "Our plan was to have students from those departments assist in some form with our projects, by either helping design the physical areas of the telecasting and Webcasting, or by producing the broadcasts. The teachers were more than happy to help us out, and the school board was in favor of that idea, too."

SUMMER CASTING
The first Webcast streams at the Ballpark at Ridgeland will take place during the Panthers Wood Bat Classic, June 27-29, during which time the suggested advertising format will be tried.

As word spreads of the new media platforms available at the Ballpark and the booster club's focus of creating minor league excitement for fans, Harden says the Panthers are garnering more regional and national competition appeal.

"For this tournament in particular, when the teams heard of our capabilities, it eased some worries, especially on travel costs," Harden says. "We have teams across the country and some internationally. If parents know they can turn on their computers and see their sons, they can feel better about not being here and knowing everything's okay.

"Also," he continues, "for parents who do come, they are just amazed at the facility and the surrounding areas, and they're glad they made the trip.The booster club likes it, too, because the ballpark is now open to new markets, both in fans and in sponsorships."


For more information on the Ballpark at Ridgeland and the Panthers Wood Bat Classic, you may contact Scott Harden at: ScottHarden@walkerschools.org



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