Love it or hate it, people recognize the new Hillcats branding. But under new management, Lynchburg’s Advanced A Minor League Baseball Club (a Cleveland Indians Affiliate) received more than a radical logo upgrade and paint job altering the team colors from hunter green and yellow to navy, lime green and teal; the organization has been reinvigorated across the board.
This should come as good news to Hill City baseball fans.
For years rumors circulated that the ’Cats were going to be sold and moved out of town.
Elmore Sports Group, however, purchased the team last year with the intent on keeping “Lynchburg” in the name.
“Other people wanted to buy the team and move it because they didn’t see the potential here,” said Hillcats President Chris Jones. “We actually do see the potential in Lynchburg. We want baseball in Lynchburg; we know it will succeed. That is our ultimate goal—to keep baseball here.”
For that commitment to work all aspects of the operation had to be evaluated.
“We had to look at everything from the ground to the top,” Jones, who has worked in baseball since 1998, said. “We had to look at all aspects of what a team is, all revenue streams from ticket sales to merchandise sales to concession sales to sponsorship sales.
“We knew that something needed to change. We needed to get our exposure in the community up; we needed to improve on attendance, merchandise sales, everything.”
In regard to merchandise sales, the team was in the lowest sales in all of Minor League Baseball, not just at its level.
“You have to ask, ‘Why?’” Jones said. “Something wasn’t working.”
The idea to change the name came up from a respected marketing firm Jones has worked with in the past. One of his former clubs regularly tops Minor League Baseball in merchandise sales. Knowing that Lynchburg’s baseball team has had a number of nicknames (including the Hill Climbers, Shoemakers, Grays, and Senators) over its storied history (dating as far back as the 1800s), Jones wanted to make sure that the team had the right name for the community. So, he let the fans decide. A voting contest was held last summer with options including the Derechos, Doves, Lamb Chops, Love Apples and River Runners. (All were explained to have some sort of inspiration from the area.)
“We just wanted to see if there were better names out there,” said Jones, who has worked with elite clubs and has experience turning teams around. “Some name that the community could rally around. They rallied around the Hillcats, which we kind of expected.”
After the community affirmed its commitment to the team name with a landslide vote, Jones had the marketing firm work to freshen up the image. Replacing the cartoonish smirking cat logo were three new marks—a fiercer snarling cat logo with Lynchburg’s seven hills skyline incorporated into the design, a stylized “L” with a cat’s paw and a leaping cat secondary logo.
They chose a brighter color scheme to better evoke the beauty of the region. Jones said he personally likes hunter green, but for the Hillcats team what it had simply did not work.
So, a darker blue was chosen to evoke the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lime green was selected because that hue stands out all around in the springtime as vegetation ripens and teal was the final touch, just as it accents Lynchburg’s sunsets.
“The sunsets over here are unreal,” Jones, a Houston, Texas native, said. “When it first starts turning, you see the teal. It’s really neat. We used some of the colors from the surroundings as our bases.”
Though some in the community had a hard time with the change—a “vocal minority” on social media, according to Jones—the new look seems to be largely well-received.
In just one week, online merchandise sales of the new look exceeded that of the entire offseason of the old.
“Right away, you had response,” Jones said. “A lot of positive, some negative.”
People now point out the new logo in restaurants and bars, and, more importantly, children are eager to gear up with the new look, one they deem significantly more fashionable.
Aesthetics are just one aspect of the organization’s efforts to excite the fan base. Jones wants the Hillcats to be a part of the community by giving back. The team has a fundraising program for nonprofits where they can sell tickets for $9 and keep $4. The team has reached out to all of the area children’s baseball groups to offer support and partnership opportunities.
In January, the organization announced a partnership with the Humane Society.
Shortly after announcing the partnership, the Hillcats revealed their new mascot, Southpaw 2.0, a warmer, brighter and friendlier version of its predecessor (who will still make appearances at games). Jones is friends with the original “Philly Phanatic” Dave Raymond (one of the most iconic sports mascots ever) who has consulted with him on characters.
The new Southpaw was unveiled as a “rescue” from the animal shelter, helping highlight the important work the society does and demonstrating the Hillcats’ commitment to a symbiotic relationship with the community.
Also, the new Southpaw has been making the rounds at as many local elementary schools as possible to help promote literacy and reinforce the core values that the schools teach. The baseball organization wrote a coloring book, “Southpaw Goes to School,” that is being given away at these rallies and is also available online to download. The book includes a bookmark that encourages children to read four books and receive two free tickets to a select game.
“It is our way of giving back and helping with literacy and supporting the schools and reinforcing what they are trying to teach in a fun way,” Jones said.
To open their gates to a wider fan base, regardless of income, the team slashed ticket prices—general admission dropped to $6, the lowest price in four years, and all chairbacks are now $9 (instead of varied price points). The goal is to allow more families to come in and enjoy the ballpark. Home games have theme night promotions for each day of the week (see graphic) including fireworks every Saturday the ’Cats are in town.
The ballpark is now dog-friendly every game, allowing guests to bring their pets along, provided they behave and remain in a certain section (so those who do not wish to be near dogs need not worry).
Upgrades to the stadium were made to elevate the fan experience. The souvenir shop was moved and its former space turned into a taphouse. An expanded kids area with new inflatables was created along the first base side. A picnic area with room for 300 was added along the opposite side. Four-top tables were added behind home plate, from dugout-to-dugout, offering a special seating area that gives fans the feeling that they are sitting right there on the field.
A state-of-the-art, sub-terrain drainage system was installed to reduce the number of rain cancellations. Even the parking lot was completely redone to remove the trip hazards. The team is considering adding a dog park as well.
If attracting more people to Hillcats games means Jones has to shrug off some flak, he’s fine with it. He will let his team’s game, on and off the field, speak for the club.
“The ultimate thing is that there is a loyalty to this brand,” he said. “Whatever it is; there are people who wanted everything to change and some people who wanted nothing to change. Unfortunately, the people who wanted nothing to change were not going to have a team for much longer. So, we had to do something. I hope that they understand that ultimately baseball is still here in Lynchburg. Young professionals are still running out on the field trying to get their Big League dreams, that hasn’t changed. What has changed is hopefully we are getting more involved in the community and giving back to the community and more visible in the community, making the fan experience better so that they want to continue coming.”
Learn more at Lynchburg-Hillcats.com
By Drew Menard