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Despite having a beautiful, modern ballpark and competitive team, the Red Sox rank second-to-last in the Carolina League in average attendance.
Salem Surf Ninjas has a nice ring to it.
Saturday, July 13, 2013
They could be Woodchucks or Wasps, Critters or Creek Rats.
They could be Serpents or Swordsmen, Skeeters or Skinks.
They could be Salamanders. They could be Striped Bass. Heck, they could even be Surf Ninjas.
The nickname they would choose doesn't really matter right now. What matters is the nickname they must choose to abandon: the Salem Red Sox.
It's time for our minor league baseball team to change its identity. Or more accurately, it's time for our team to COMMIT to changing its identity. You don't roll out new uniforms, merchandise and signage in the middle of the season, but you can decide now that this is what you'll do in 2014.
And it's what they should do.
The opportune hour is upon them. On Tuesday, after 14 years in the Boston organization, Todd Stephenson will work his final day as general manager of the Salem Red Sox. Ownership says the search for his replacement likely will take eight to 10 weeks, and they'd prefer to have a permanent GM selected before the end of the season.
That's smart. Even smarter would be to give that new GM the gift of a fresh start in the Roanoke Valley, complete with a new nickname and logo that could begin the reconnection process with fans.
Because the disconnect is real. It's evident at the turnstiles. Despite having a beautiful, modern ballpark and competitive team, the Sox rank second-to-last in the Carolina League in average attendance. They entered Saturday drawing 2,551 per game. That's even lower than last year (2,628), when the team set a dubious record for lowest average attendance since moving to Salem Memorial Ballpark full time in 1996.
The name is far from the only factor here, of course. The weather's been lousy. Concession prices could be more fan-friendly. Conflicts that cause parking issues, such as this week's Salem Fair and last month's Roanoke Valley Horse Show, can drive away would-be baseball attendees.
But the name does not help.
The Boston Red Sox are a wonderful franchise - one of the most historic and powerful in all of sports - but they are also polarizing, mostly because they are good enough to be polarizing. And there's no reason a minor league affiliate 700 miles from its parent club needs a nickname that potentially alienates a good chunk of the local fan base.
Think about it: If you're a Yankees fan (and there are plenty around here), are you going to buy a shirt that has a Red Sox logo on it? Braves fans? Orioles fans? Nats fans? Are you going to purchase one for your child, even if it has Salem on it?
"I agree with you," said Salem Red Sox senior assistant general manager Allen Lawrence, who will take over for Stephenson on an interim basis. "I've had Yankees fans that have told me that they're not coming to another game until we change our name."
"I tell 'em to come root against us," Lawrence said. "We just want 'em here; we don't care who they're rooting for. But you're right. If you look at a lot of the teams across the country, we're in the minority. Most of these organizations have a very unique name that is unique to their market."
In the eight-team Carolina League, Potomac (Nationals) is the only other team that carries its parent club's nickname. In the Red Sox organization alone, only the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox and the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Red Sox have the nickname. Short-season Lowell (Spinners), Low-A Greenville (Drive) and Double-A Portland (Sea Dogs) do not.
With few exceptions, parent-club nicknames are limited to the rookie-level Appalachian, Gulf Coast and Arizona leagues, where teams can use hand-me-down uniforms and indoctrinate the fledgling players to their method of preparation.
Nearly everybody else - from the New Hampshire Fisher Cats to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes - goes the creative route.
And there's a reason for that. Nothing is lost by changing the name. Diehard Boston Red Sox fans are still going to come to get a peek at the prospects. You can still sell parent-club merchandise in the gift shop.
But you also can open up a whole new realm of marketing possibilities with a new name and logo. You can sell a T-shirt a Botetourt-born Yankees fan would wear with pride.
Just as importantly, you can send a signal to the community that this is its team, not some colonized property with a pitching mound.
"I think we would consider anything," said Lawrence, a lifelong Red Sox fan and a candidate for the full-time GM job. "We've kind of even just thrown it around in the office - if we were to have another name, what would it be? ... You look at teams like Richmond and the Flying Squirrels. When that name came out, I think a lot of people questioned that. But it's worked very well for them."
The name wouldn't have to be gimmicky, just different. It could have ties to the region - or not. It could lend itself to cute mascots - or not. Ideally, ownership would put several up for a vote in the valley and let the community decide.
Do it for the potential profits, or do it as a goodwill gesture. Regardless, just do it.
It'd be a great first step toward bringing a buzz back to the ballpark.
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