Columbia’s minor league Fireflies stocked for inaugural home baseball game

Final preparations are underway at Spirit Communications Park for the first Columbia Fireflies baseball game. Matthew Strader, merchandise manager, tags shirts before displaying them in the Mason Jar Team Store.
Final preparations are underway at Spirit Communications Park for the first Columbia Fireflies baseball game. Matthew Strader, merchandise manager, tags shirts before displaying them in the Mason Jar Team Store. tdominick@thestate.com

Dot Valentine grew up in New Jersey with nary an interest in sports — in fact, she has never attended a sporting event of any kind.

But Friday she was in the Columbia Fireflies’ gift shop at the new Spirit Communications Park picking out gear for her first foray into the world of sports, next Thursday’s home opener for Columbia’s new minor league baseball team.

Valentine, who retired from Wall Street four years ago and moved to Columbia in September, bought a 12-game package of tickets and plans to make baseball a regular outing with her daughter, Karen, a teacher at Dent Middle School in northeast Richland County.

“This is my first venture with sports and we decided to start out with (the Fireflies) from the beginning,” said Valentine, eyeing a $32 top and $22 hat emblazoned with the team’s glow-in-the-dark logo. “We needed matching outfits. Plus, I love the firefly. It’s just adorable!”

The Mason Jar Team Store has been open in the $37 million, mostly taxpayer-funded Spirit Communications Park on the Bull Street redevelopment site since the team held a Fan Fest April 3. Also, deliveries have been steady for a month at the park, hauling in everything from pretzels to kegs of beer and buckets of ice cream.

“We ordered a ton of hot dogs,” team president John Katz said. “I mean, we literally ordered a ton of hot dogs.”

Actually, according to Fireflies staff, the team ordered 1.25 tons of hot dogs for the opening three-game homestand, which translates into about 25,000 individual wieners.

With about 10,000 people expected for Thursday’s home opener against the Greenville Drive, team officials are packing in a little extra to make sure no fans are shorted. All of the seats for the game are sold out, but there were still some tickets available Friday for the outfield berm.

“You err on having a little too much,” team owner Jason Freier said. “We would rather throw out a few hot dog buns at the end of the day than not having a hot dog for someone who wants a hot dog. We figure about 600 hot dogs for every 1,000 people at the games.”

But concessions and merchandise make up only a small percentage of the team’s bottom line revenue compared with ticket sales, sponsorships and advertising, Freier said.

The margin on concessions is small when you consider the food has to be purchased, stored, prepared, cooked and served, Freier said. And prices need to be kept low to stay within a fan’s budget, particularly with families.

The stadium has four concession stands and 27 food carts, adding about 225 part-time employees on game day to the staff of 27 full-time employees.

The money made from concessions “is relatively low,” Freier said, without elaborating further on the team’s business plan. “Merchandise would be less than each of the other (categories).”

But merchandise brings the added benefit of free advertising for the team. Plus, the licensed products are the same quality as those found in major-league gift shops, reflecting the quality of the product on the field and the parent teams they represent, Freier said, in the case of the Fireflies, the New York Mets.

“We’re not printing up a lot of cheap T-shirts,” he said.

Since it opened April 3, the store has seen a steady stream of customers as patrons wander in after picking up tickets for Thursday’s home opener. Store manager Matthew Strader estimated sales at about $2,000 a day.

The most popular items are the 59Fifty brand New Era caps with glow-in-the-dark logos. You can also score some neon yellow knee socks, mason jars (the team’s mascot is named Mason) and reflective chrome license plates.

There is even a little onesie for an infant with a glow-the-dark firefly on its bottom. “That’s my favorite,” Fireflies vice president for marketing Abby Naas said.

Strader said he expects sales to skyrocket Thursday, when about 10,000 people are expected for opening day. “We’re getting ready for a lot of people.”

One of those patrons will be Valentine, the New Jersey transplant who is attending her first sporting event.

“I’m really excited,” she said, having trouble choosing between all the different types of clothing available. “And I want to look cute.”

By the numbers

The Columbia Fireflies have stocked up before for next week’s home opener against the Greenville Drive. Here’s some of what’s in the storage rooms in preparation for the team’s first three-game homestand.

42,000 beer cups

25,000 hot dogs

360 gallons of ice cream

300 pounds of chicken tenders

240 gallons of nacho cheese

210 different items for sale in the gift shop

30 items that glow in the dark

SOURCE: Columbia Fireflies