Bellingham Bells, Slam and Roller Betties
turn sports into business
photo by Jesse Amorratanasuchad
Joe Martin Stadium is centered around a dirt baseball diamond. The finely pruned outfield envelopes the infield in a sea of deep green grass. The stadium, which was the first home to a young Ken Griffey Jr., seats 1,800 fans and has become one venue in a growing sports market in Bellingham.
Sports is a business that thrives on entertainment. Success for a professional sports team is determined by ticket sales and sponsorship. In order to raise ticket sales, the team has to entertain the crowd and consistently compete in games, said Derrel Ebert, general manager of the Bellingham Bells baseball team.
“If you don’t sell tickets, sponsors won’t be interested in getting involved with your team,” Ebert said.
Bellingham is home to several sports teams, including the Bells, the Bellingham Slam basketball team and the Bellingham Roller Betties, a local women’s roller derby league. Each group has its motivations for running a local sports team, but all of them have one goal in mind: to entertain their fans.
Sports as a business in Bellingham may seem speculative to the untrained eye, but after a season managing the logistics for the Bells, Ebert said support for the baseball team has been phenomenal and is continuing to grow.
The Bellingham Bells: ‘Baseball is not just about the game’
Since taking the helm of the Bellingham Bells front office in September 2008, Ebert has taken pride in providing an entertainment venue that often has nothing to do with baseball. The Bellingham Bells baseball team could lose a game 10-0 and the fans would still go home happy, Ebert said.
“When fans come to games, they are entertained the minute they walk through the gates,” Ebert said. “Whether it’s a clown making balloon animals or a fireworks show during the seventh-inning stretch, going to a [Bells] baseball game isn’t just about the players on the field.”
Brett Sports and Entertainment took over the Bells from local owner Tony Larson in December 2007. Former General Manager Dave Lewis and the Bells then started from scratch to rebuild the club from the ground up. This meant purchasing new uniforms, baseball equipment and hiring administrative staff and promoting advertisement and merchandising.
After Lewis left the club to take a job in parks and recreation in Tacoma, Ebert was called to take his place. The Bells now have three full-time employees, including Ebert, Assistant General Manager Matt Hargleroad and Account Executive Jake Valentine.
Since last season, the Bells saw a 54 percent increase in ticket sales, Ebert said, which means more money can be devoted to increasing the team’s fan base, while providing a good venue in Joe Martin Stadium for fans to enjoy the game.
The Bells are not allowed to pay their players because they are still collegiate athletes who are playing at school. This means most of the Bells’ revenue from ticket sales goes towards paying staff, advertisements and equipment maintenance and repair.
Traveling had been a major expense for the Bells, and Ebert was responsible for booking hotels, buses and other travel arrangements when the team had to go out of state. But since moving to a league that competes more locally, this has been less of a hit to the Bells’ budget.
Recruiting players from out of state also poses its own problems. Finding apartments or homes for rent on a month-to-month basis is difficult, particularly since athletes will only be in Bellingham from the beginning of June until early August.
Ebert has solved this problem by setting athletes up with host families, who take the players into their homes for the duration of their stay.
“The host families have been great,” Ebert said. “They help the players become a part of those people’s family. We want to embrace the players as part of this community and have them here to represent the Bellingham area.”
The Bellingham Slam: A taste of the professional game
Bellingham is also home to its own professional basketball team. The Bellingham Slam have been in the city since the summer of 2005. General Manager Bob Hofstetter has been with the team from the beginning.
Before moving to the International Basketball League (IBL) from the American Basketball Association, the Slam spent most of its money on travel expenses.
Unlike the Bells, the Slam pays its players, which means most of the club’s revenue goes toward salaries. The athletes are paid a salary of approximately $1,500 a month during the IBL season, from April until early June.
Hofstetter was adamant to point out that Bellingham was an area primed for a professional basketball team. The large number of high schools in the area, as well as the Western Washington University’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, allows fans to watch quality basketball, while again, providing a game that keeps spectators enthralled.
There is a distinct difference in the atmosphere of a Slam game from a high school or college game, Hofstetter said. A high-scoring, NBA-style game tempo as well as music, dancers and crowd participation give the Whatcom Pavilion an electric buzz when fans sit in the stands to watch the Slam play.
Like the Bells, the Slam’s mission is to provide inexpensive entertainment for the whole family as well as give athletes an opportunity to showcase their own ability.
“My kids are both basketball fans and so am I,” Hofstetter said. “I just wanted to help bring a high level of quality basketball to Bellingham.”
The Slam’s move to a league that plays in the spring instead of during the fall and winter has not only been beneficial for the players, but has also helped at the business end of the organization as a whole.
“We’re the only basketball in town during this time,” Hofstetter said. “Before baseball starts, we’re pretty much the only [sport] going spectator-wise. We saw an immediate jump when we moved to spring, which was nice.”
The Slam are now in the middle of their fourth season, and Hofstetter said the club has seen a correlation of success and growth since he has been with the team. The club averages 500 people per game, an increase from 300 last season.
After winning the national championship as well as placing first in the league last season, the Slam’s fan base has expanded. Because of the Slam’s success, some of the team’s top players have also received opportunities to pursue their careers overseas or in the NBA developmental league, Hofstetter said.
“The goal is to give players an avenue to develop their game and taste what it’s like to be a professional,” Hofstetter said. “This will hopefully springboard their careers once the Slam season is over [in August.]”
photo by Jesse Amorratanasuchad
The Bellingham Roller Betties: In a league of their own
Many people assume that roller derby is not a sport, but Sorrell Joshua and the Bellingham Roller Betties have been striving to change the misconception in Bellingham.
“It’s a physical and mental sport,” said Joshua, who is the chair of the Roller Betties’ board of directors.. “[The game] is so strategic and it takes a lot of teamwork. We’re not interested in making money. In fact we pay to play this game. We all just want to be able to give back to the Bellingham community.”
Joshua was part of the original group of women who brought the three-team roller derby league into fruition in 2006. The Roller Betties consist of three teams: Tough Love, Flash and the Cog Blockers.
“Everybody is so drawn to the sport,” said Ivana Berool, league treasurer. “It brings all these women from different walks of life together for the same purpose, which is to get out there and be competitive. Everyone’s on different teams, but at the end of the day, we’re all friends.”
The Roller Betties strive to be a good image for children and show that although the teams compete against each other, there is camaraderie amongst them, which is irreplaceable, Berool said.
The Roller Betties have a bout on June 20, which costs between $8,000 to $10,000 to put on at the Sportsplex, said Berool. Price for general admission is $12 at the door and attendance for bouts often ranges between 500 to 2,000 people.
Any extra money often goes toward a chosen charity or non profit organization, such as the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Brigid Collins and Big Brothers Big Sisters, or is put directly back into the maintenance of the league. The Roller Betties pay to practice at Skagit Skate in Burlington twice a week, and last year, the teams bought their own roller skating floor, which cost $20,000.
“It’s not a money-making venture by any means,” Joshua said. “As long as we have enough money to put on the next bout, we’re not here to get rich. Everything we do is basically to try and give back to the community.”
The Roller Betties are a sports organization that is run entirely by the players, Joshua said. Although there is a board of directors and people in leadership positions, major decisions are always made with the entire group. In order to be a member of the league, players have to pay dues monthly and profits made from Betties-sponsored events are put directly back into the community.
“We all own this business together,” Joshua said. “So every decision that’s made affects all of us.”