Cal Baseball famously avoided the chopping block in 2011 by raising enough money to buy time to get the program endowed. Can you update us on how well the effort is going so far? How can the common Cal fans help?
The best way to characterize the effort is that it is ongoing. What the Cal Baseball Foundation did with the 2011 fundraising effort was very savvy - they didn't ask just for immediate bulk donations. They gave community members the option to stretch their donations out over a period of time, so that you could give $1,000 right now, and then, every year, give $1,000 more, and let's say that gift was over the course of five years, they counted that as $5,000, which helped to the $10 million total.
What that accomplished was to tie donors into the program, so that they had a vested interest in it over the long haul. It also wasn't just folks in the Cal development office calling for gifts; players, coaches and other community members were making those calls, as well. In addition to that, those same individuals would personally call donors to thank them, and hand-wrote letters of thanks. Again, what that does is create a personal and lasting stake in the program for the donors.
The $10 million figure ensures the stability of the program for the next 7-10 years, and that's all well and good, but it's not the end of the story. With the additions of the scoreboard, lights and the other upcoming plans for Evans Diamond also come associated costs (changing light bulbs, general maintenance, paying video board operators, etc.), so more and more money has to continually be raised. Hence, the fundraising effort around the program now is comprehensive - and it has to be.
They're not just shooting for the six-figure gifts or even just donors who traditionally have been identified as being able to give that much. They're going after everyone, from recent grads who may only be able to give $10 in a single shot to those big-money donors, which, after my hour-long talk with Sandy Barbour for the book on the 2011 season, is something that had not really been done before. It's really a group effort, and it's designed to be self-perpetuating.
What can Cal fans do to help the effort? Going to calbaseballfoundation.org is a good first step. You can donate to future facility improvements (including a new press box, an entrance plaza on Schlessinger Way, new seating and more) or just donate to the yearly operating budget of the program.
Second: Go to games. With the addition of lights and the new video scoreboard, the Bears saw their third straight season of increased attendance. In 2010, Cal drew 10,721 to Evans Diamond. In 2011, the Bears drew 11,031. In 2012, the first season after the College World Series appearance, Cal saw 12,511 come through the turnstiles. In 2013, the Bears saw nearly a 50% increase in attendance, drawing 18,135, and that was with the lights coming online only for the second half of the season.
The new Beer Pen out in left field adds alcohol sales and draws the current-student and recent-grad crowd to heretofore sparsely-attended day games, and of course it's a great place to throw a few back on a cold Berkeley night.
The program has done what David Esquer wanted to do back before the cut, which is to turn the experience at Evans Diamond into more of a minor league atmosphere, with between-inning activities, trivia games and special promotions (they gave away nifty dog bowls at a Bark in the Park night last season). That kind of atmosphere turns the program into a money-maker, regardless of performance, which, I can tell you, after working for a Triple-A team before I came back to cover Cal, is exactly what minor league teams have to do, because they can't control the talent on the field.
That - more than anything - is the path for sustainability with this program. Investing in facilities and in game atmosphere is going to get more butts in the seats, and those butts are going to spend more money on merchandise and on food.
So, what I'm saying is, go get a nice day drunk on in the beer garden, buy a hot dog or three and spend a few hours at Evans Diamond. Come up to the press box, say ‘Hi,' and pick any seat you want.
2013 saw plenty of improvements to Evans Diamond, with the new lights that allow the Bears to host night games and the addition of a new video scoreboard. There are also new amenities for the fans such as a beer garden. For those of us who have not had the pleasure to experience all of these improvements in person yet, can you describe the new gameday experience? How comparable is it to that of other Pac-12 teams?
I've been to Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC so far, and I can definitely see the atmosphere tracking towards what it is at Jackie Robinson Stadium. The park certainly shows its age, but what the national champion Bruins have done there, is make the most out of what they have, on a limited footprint. That's exactly what Cal is aiming to do. Adding beer sales puts the Bears in a class with Arizona and Arizona State, but the parks where the Wildcats play in a former Spring Training facility, and the Sun Devils play in Packard Stadium - a comparable facility - Evans Diamond is never going to be that. It's built on a very small plot of land, and has to make the most out of its square footage. The further improvements on tap include increasing the bank of the seating bowl to a level much like Jackie Robinson Stadium, which provides better sightlines and adds capacity.
As I said earlier, the program wants to turn the experience into one that mirrors minor league parks, and to that end, they're going to finally even out the seating so that there's the main bowl behind home (where I anticipate seatback seating to be added), a grass berm down the right field line and additional bleacher seating down the left field line. That gives you a picnic area, premium seating and general admission, which allows for tiered pricing and, yes, more money and flexibility for fans.
As for the experience itself, it's very Cal. Without the infrastructure of a PK Park (which doubles as a minor league facility) or a Dedeaux Field, the game day staffers work their tails off to make sure there's never a dull moment. There are t-shirt tosses, lots of activities for the youngsters and an on-campus atmosphere that few other programs in the Pac-12 can offer. For a family, going to a Cal game can now be a whole-day experience. You can get lunch on Telegraph, walk around the campus, pop up to the Campanile or lounge in the eucalyptus grove, and then meander your way down to the park where the kids will have the run of the place, from player autographs to running the bases after a game to big-uniform races between innings. On Sundays, there's face painting and other carnival-style diversions down the left field line.
Of the stadiums I've been to, the fans are never closer to the field and the players as they are at Evans Diamond. You can hear a fastball cutting through the air down in the bullpen, balance a brew while you reach for a foul ball in the beer garden and partake of the same kinds of foods you'll find at Haas Pavilion. The difference from when I first covered this team from 2005-08 and this past season is mind-boggling, and the increased attendance really elevates the atmosphere.