Bottom line forcing changes in the old ball game.
Baseball may be a game, but keeping the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club on the field is a business.
And this year the business' bottom line will mean some significant changes when the season at Little Rock's Ray Winder Field begins April 6 with a home stand against the Jackson, Miss., Mets.
Case in point: Free nights with tickets given away by area businesses are on the way out.
"Those are coming to an end," says Traveler General Manager Bill Valentine. "We just can't make money on them anymore."
Businesses don't pay the full cost of the tickets, and although freebies do fill the seats, Valentine says, those folks aren't buying enough hot dogs, popcorn and beer to justify the free entry.
"Our concession sales per person have dropped a dollar to $1.50," he says. "You can't live on $2 or $2.50 a person."
Every dollar the club gets in ticket revenue is almost all profit, but every concession dollar accounts for only about 40 cents profit.
Of 68 home games last year, Valentine says, in more than 50 there was somebody somewhere somehow giving out free tickets.
"And our profit margin last year was the lowest it's been in 10 years," he says.
Because the Travelers are owned by 1,300 stockholding fans, the club doesn't have a profit-hungry owner.
"Every dime that's made goes right back into Ray Winder Field," Valentine says. "Except for salaries, nobody's making a dime off the Travelers."
Established in 1901, the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club is the state's only professional sports team, and Ray Winder Field is the only privately owned sports stadium or arena in the state.
The Travelers have drawn more than 200,000 fans every year for the last 15 years.
Valentine knows that dropping free tickets will cause attendance to drop as well. "Our gate by 1996 will fall by 50,000," he says. "But we'll make more money because we'll need less help and have less overhead."
Valentine says the Travelers are the last team in the Texas League to cut back on free nights.
"And it's not just here, it's a national trend," he says. "Surveys show that people who pay to get in spend more once they're at a game, I guess because they've made a concentrated effort to go."
Instead of buying blocks of tickets, some sponsoring businesses will pay for promotions - bat and cap nights, for example - or entertainment between doubleheader games.
Midweek free tickets will remain, at least this year, Valentine says, but when you go to the ballpark on a Friday or Saturday, expect to pay: Tickets cost $4 for adults, $3 for members of the armed services and $2 for kids up to age 14.
"You'll find that by 1997, the only free tickets will be for Monday or Wednesday nights," Valentine says.
On Wednesday nights, for example, Golden Eagle Ice Co. - maker of Abaga Ice - gives away tickets, a practice that started four years ago when the company was just a year old.
Other changes at Ray Winder Field:
* Fans coming up the ramps into the stands will be greeted by the ballpark's new, $250,000 scoreboard, which combines some high-tech features with an old-fashioned look.
Valentine says that because Ray Winder Field turns 63 this year - making it the fifth-oldest ballpark in the country - "I didn't want one of those newfangled looking scoreboards. I wanted something that looks like Wrigley Field or Fenway."
Valentine's been wanting a new scoreboard for several years, but there was no way the club could afford one. That was until engineers from Alltel Corp. noticed a gap in their signal coverage, and it happened to be around Ray Winder Field. Valentine agreed to let Alltel put up a booster station at the ballpark (it's the funny looking light pole at the end of the first-base line), and the company kicked in a good chunk of the cost of the scoreboard.
* A new warning track of crushed lava rock from Colorado behind home plate and in front of the stands along the first-and third-base lines. Unfortunately, the $12,000 worth of material ran out before the track along the outfield fence could be finished.
* The infield's been lowered. The playing field used to drop like an Aspen ski slope between the infield and outfield, causing second basemen and shortstops (especially from visiting teams) to stumble while chasing bloops to the shallow outfield. Work throughout the field cost $140,000.
Also, Valentine admits the quality of play by the Travelers may be affected by the Major League Baseball players' strike.
Although minor league players are not on strike, each major league team carries a 40-man roster - 25 players and the 15 top prospects - and all are on strike.
"We've got five players on the [St. Louis] Cardinals' list who normally would be starting for us," Valentine says. "That's five of our nine starters sitting at home. Now, some of the people we get to replace them may be just as good, but you can't expect all five to be just as good."