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New Lafayette Baseball Team's Formula: If You Pour It, More Might Come

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Quinn Dombrowski
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https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/

Lafayette’s Loeb Stadium, the 75-year-old 3,500-seater in Columbian Park, is home to the Colt World series, American Legion baseball and Jefferson High School’s team. But when it comes to professional ball, things have never quite worked out for the ballpark.

As was announced this week, a consortium that owns several Midwestern collegiate teams is ready to try again.

Lafayette Parks District leaders announced they will rent out the stadium to MKE, a Milwaukee-based company that owns, among many other venues and sports franchises, the Kokomo Jackrabbits baseball team. Like the Jackrabbits, the new Lafayette team will be a member of the Prospect League, a collegiate wooden bat league with teams dotted across the Midwest.

Since it was built 75 years ago, the stadium’s been home to four such teams, but only one has existed for more than two years. That team, the Lafayette Leopards, was only here for five seasons.

So is the new team doomed to a similar fate? What makes this team different?

Experts say it’s about booze.

“For a lot of people, going to those types of events and drinking beer go hand-in-hand,” says Galen Clavio, who teaches sports marketing at Indiana University. The Lafayette native knew exactly what he had to ask to judge the incoming team’s potential to stay longer than its predecessors:

“Have they lifted the ban on alcohol at Loeb Stadium?"

You see, Loeb Stadium belongs to the Lafayette Parks Department, and their rules are clear: there’s no alcohol allowed on parks property. That means those Leopards games in the 1990s were dry, save for what people could sneak in.

But this time around, Clavio says the parks board seems to have seen the light -- Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light...

“It seems kind of crass and rather basic that that would be such a key economic factor in a minor league team succeeding,” Clavio says, “But I think the thing that people have to remember, most people don’t go to minor league games, particularly a prospect league games, to watch the sport.”

In other words, the thrill of the game itself has more pull when it comes to watching top-level professionals -- but Clavio contends lower levels of the sport need another attraction.

Reps from MKE insist even though the city allowing alcohol sales was a deciding factor in coming to Lafayette, it’s about way more than just beer.

“It’s a large factor,” explains MKE Chief Development Officer Josh Schaub,” [but] it’s not even just alcohol alone. If there would be controversy over selling soda in the ballpark, it would be the same thing. The only way minor league teams in no matter what sport can survive is they have to be everything to everybody.”

That means creating an experience for fans at every level, including offering special activities and spaces for kids and families, and group outing areas for corporate nights out.

“Just like restaurants or anything else, when you show up you expect there to be options on the menu,” Schaub says.

John Miner, Lafayette Parks Director of Operations, says the city monitored what MKE did in Kokomo. Miner says he knows the park board’s approval of alcohol sales was a tough call -- there were a couple dissenting voices among members of the city council. But Miner believes offering beer sales does not mean fans will be drunk and disorderly.

“As we talked to the folks in Kokomo we were very impressed with the controls and the manner in which MKE had established to have those beer sales and to have it in a controlled environment,” he says.

That controlled environment means a two-beer maximum and shutting down sales during the seventh inning.

And while the Leopards leapt from league to league during their tenure in Lafayette, the Prospect League is one of the more established collegiate leagues in the country and has several teams within a short drive from Loeb Stadium.

Finally, it fits well into the venue’s current schedule, which needs to accommodate high school games in the spring, but empty out by the time Purdue sports dominate the calendar in the fall and winter.

The as-yet unnamed Lafayette team will throw its first pitch -- and the first round of suds will pour -- come May.

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