It’s an idyllic late spring evening in Reading, PA, about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and the fans of the Reading Fightin Phils are already queued up, waiting for the gates to open at FirstEnergy Stadium for a busy Saturday night game against the Hartford Yard Goats.
Among them are families with kids looking forward to Superhero Night – complete with branded T-shirts and capes for sale, a superhero autograph session, and players dressed in Captain America-inspired jerseys – along with groups of older adults who, as one gentleman from nearby Deer Lake said simply, “come for the beer.”
Whatever reason brings them out, the team’s dedicated staff is glad they’re here. Among them is Ryan Springborn, the team’s fast-talking, always-moving merchandising manager and sales representative who manages the team store, coordinates and sources products, takes care of budgeting, looks for sponsors and constantly thinks up promotions ideas. For this game, he’s heading up sales efforts at the team store, including restocking the superhero shirt and cape tables just inside the gates. “We’re expecting to sell a lot of these tonight,” he says.
One fan checking out the superhero garb is Kim Bennett of from Pottstown, PA. She’s deciding on shirts for her grandkids in Indianapolis. “When they come to visit, we go to games together,” she says. “They like meeting the players and mascots, and watching the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor throw hot dogs into the stands between innings. They’ve been to minor league games out in Indiana, but they say it’s so much fun here.”
Inside the team store, apparel is stocked wall-to-wall from Vantage Apparel (asi/93390), Nike, Under Armour, Boxercraft (asi/41325), Retro and ’47 Forward. There’s also foam fingers, mugs, pennants, baseballs and more. Staff member Judy Ciervo is busy using a heat press and SimStitch lettering from STAHLS’ (asi/88984) to apply names and numbers to just-purchased superhero shirts.
“Theme nights, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, are big for personalization,” she says. “Fans will get their name on a shirt or jersey and then have the players sign it.” The Reading native and “long-time fan” works here part-time in the summer, spending the rest of her week as a realtor. “It’s so much fun here,” she says. “Everyone is always in a good mood. It’s a happy place to work.”
And as the oldest stadium in the Eastern League, it’s also a storied place. Completed in 1951 and home to the Philadelphia Phillies’ Double A affiliate in Reading since 1967, its long history has inspired recent giveaways, like an uncut card set of the ’67 team and T-shirts with the 50 greatest players of all time, as voted on by the fans. They’ve also incorporated a new “America’s Classic Ballpark” logo on select items, including long-sleeve shirts given out on Opening Night 2017. Popular giveaways this year have included hats, baseballs, bobbleheads, bags, posters and more.
From giveaways, to special themes (which also includes Elvis Tribute Night and Ladies’ Night this season), to fireworks shows and food and drink specials, “we do multiple promotions a night to keep things fun, fresh and creative,” says Springborn. “As an organization, we strive to create the most entertaining promotion schedule for all our fans.”
One of the team’s most hotly anticipated promotions was the 16th annual Morning Game on Monday, August 7 at 9:30 a.m. This year the Fightins added something special to the day: a temporary rebrand as the Reading Whoopies, in homage to the Whoopie Pie, a tasty treat made of two soft chocolate cake buns with vanilla icing in the center. It’s a Pennsylvania Amish tradition that’s popular in Berks County.
“There’s recently been a huge trend among Minor League teams with food,” says Springborn. “The nearby Lehigh Valley IronPigs have done bacon promotions with branded gear, and the Fresno Grizzlies in California have done something similar with tacos.”
The Fightins designed brown hats with a white stripe around the outside, representing the icing, along with shirts that say “Reading Whoopies” and “I [heart] Whoopies” in icing-like scripted font. Earlier in the season they were already on sale at the team store, and in just four weeks, orders started coming in from across the U.S.
The first 2,000 fans who arrived at the Morning Game by 7:30 received a free hot dog, coffee, and, of course, a Whoopie Pie, along with a screen-printed Whoopie Cushion seat pillow. Meanwhile, the game’s secondary promotion was a Kegs and Eggs Beer Fest at the stadium’s Coors Light Deck. “It’s been one of the best games in ticket pre-sales we’ve ever had,” says Springborn. “It’s on par with a weekend game.”
Two die-hard fans who likely enjoyed their Whoopie Pies and Cushions that morning are Doug and Joanne Slichter from Reading. They’ve been coming to games since the 1960s, and they rarely miss a match-up, even if it means taking off work or going on the road. On Superhero Night, they’re already in their regular seats 30 minutes before the official first pitch, basking in the perfect weather and waiting expectantly.
“We’ve been to every stadium in the Eastern League,” says Joanne, as superheroes make their grand entrances onto the field and kids jog onto the pitcher’s mound to take their turns throwing first pitches. “It’s constant entertainment and very community-oriented. Every half inning there’s something going on. And our house is full of every kind of giveaway you can imagine.”