Despite the fact that Victoria has a strong baseball culture — thanks in part to a mild climate that makes a long playing season possible — a baseball team based here has never fared well. Until the HarbourCats, that is.
According to Jim Swanson, the HarbourCats’ Managing Partner, the reason for the failure of past teams like the Victoria Seals and the Victoria Capitals wasn’t because of lack of interest from locals. In almost every case, it was the league that failed — and so far, the West Coast League, the collegiate league to which the HarbourCats belongs, is going strong. Yet this is only part of the reason for the business’ success in a small amount of time.
Despite facing its own challenges in 2013 and 2014, the HarbourCats has seen continued growth due to hard work and a lot of creativity. Here, Swanson and Brad Norris-Jones, the General Manager of the HarbourCats, share how focusing on the entertainment value of baseball helped propel the HarbourCats to success.
The HarbourCats’ Success
Since the team was founded in 2012, the business has seen growth in all areas. According to Swanson, the HarbourCats has “seen boosts in corporate involvement, boosts in revenue and boosts in community involvement, which can [lead to] people coming to the ticket booth more often.”
And based on the attendance numbers, Swanson is right. Swanson says each game averages 2,400 people, an impressive number considering games aren’t once a week. (When the HarbourCats play at home, they usually play Friday, Saturday and Sunday.)
In 2016, the HarbourCats was one of the top 10 teams for attendance in summer collegiate baseball leagues in North America. “And by the end of this year, we’ll have led the West Coast League in attendance for five straight years,” adds Swanson.
Part of the reason for this is a widespread recognition of the brand, something that certainly didn’t exist in 2012. Norris-Jones tells stories of locals yelling “Go HarbourCats” as he runs along Dallas Road wearing the team’s shirt. Kids who went to games with their parents are now going with their friends, or bringing their own kids. And both Swanson and Norris-Jones say no one questions whether working with the HarbourCats is a full-time job anymore — the community knows it is.
What’s interesting is that this enthusiasm for the local brand extends beyond the typical baseball fan: a 102-year-old woman attended a game in June, sitting in her wheelchair and enjoying a beer. “We are part of the city now,” says Norris-Jones. “In the summer, going to a game is the thing to do.”
What Makes the HarbourCats Different
Yes, the team supports young athletes’ careers (14 HarbourCats athletes were drafted to the MLB in the last year) but it’s about more than just the baseball. The HarbourCats reached its level of success through hard work and a strong business strategy, the desire to be innovative, and very creative marketing.
For starters, the HarbourCats has a solid business strategy. Swanson says the HarbourCats is the only team in the WCL that has employees on long-term contracts, was the first WCL team to hire a former MLB employee as a manager, and they are willing to charge for the quality product, all of which contribute to a solid level of play, positive brand image and revenue growth.
“We don’t give away tickets. We charge real money — you can get tickets at Save On Foods for $9 or at the gate for $13,” says Norris-Jones. “For example, most American teams will give away $2 tickets multiple times throughout the season. We don’t have any interest in doing that. Our product is too good to discount it.”
The team is also innovative in how it approaches the sport. Currently, the team has the first two Cubans in league history playing as well as Claire Eccles, the team’s left-handed pitcher and the first female in league history.
But where the HarbourCats really gets ahead is with its marketing. Norris-Jones says the team’s marketing strategy has evolved and become more creative as the team and business grew since 2012.
“We travelled lots and took ideas from different parks and sports,” says Norris-Jones. “We made an effort to be creative and not be boring.” Add in the various community partnerships and collaborations, like giving away warm cookies from The Cookie Guy or the HarbourCats India Session Ale from Spinnakers, and it’s clear that the HarbourCats made a conscious effort to engage the community and get locals rallying behind the local team.
Thanks to that drive to do baseball differently, games are non-stop entertaining and essentially a big party. Simply, attend a HarbourCats game and it’s different from attending a baseball game anywhere else. There are interactive games between plays, plenty of food trucks to choose from, fireworks four times per season, Status Barber Shop brings its chairs and cuts hair every Friday and Saturday, and there quirky giveaways, like the funeral and will package. Also new this year are funky group seating areas, like the Wilson’s Group open-top double-decker bus and the Strathcona rooftop deck, adding to the baseball-watching experience. And there are future plans to bring a zipline to the park, creating a party-like atmosphere before games.
“When people come to a hockey game in Canada, it’s like a religion. They’re always looking at the game and keeping track of the score,” says Norris-Jones. “It’s different for baseball. It’s about the experience, and we add to that experience — you don’t have to love the sport to go to a game.”
Swanson agrees, saying that the HarbourCats have played into creating the best possible baseball experience.
“An American on holiday here and found out we had a baseball team. He came for the season opener, then “He said to me, ‘You guys do America better than we do America. You have one of the best atmospheres in baseball,’” says Swanson.
“For anyone who says baseball is boring, I dare them to come to one of our games.”