New Curve GM hopes to attract more fans

Goal No. 1 for new Curve general manager Derek Martin is to get the franchise’s attendance back up over 300,000 per season.

When Martin worked in ticketing and sales for the franchise a decade ago, it had never had a season with fewer than 300,000 fans attending games. Things peaked in 2004 with 394,062, for an incredible average of 5,970 fans per game – in a city of less than 50,000 people.

The Curve have topped 300,000 only once in the past eight seasons, since Bob Lozinak bought the team back from Chuck Greenberg, and that came in 2015 (302,761). This past season’s attendance was 272,640 – with five rainout dates – and the average of 4,131 was the second lowest in franchise history.

“I feel you start with attendance,” Martin said when asked about his top priority during his introductory news conference Friday. “Everything else goes from there.”

The new GM joked that his first goal is “to have no games in April and May.” Those are always the toughest two months for attendance in the Eastern League because of poor weather and kids still being in school.

“Some ideas that I have in April and May is to have close partnerships with nonprofit groups,” Martin said. “The Curve is a great resource to help them raise money, raise awareness.”

It’s also about, he added, “being active in the community, with the churches, with youth leagues, with Little Leagues.”

In some ways, Martin is a perfect hire for the Curve. He was with the franchise from 2002-07, during its attendance heyday, and can draw on what worked back then from ticketing and group sales standpoints.

But the Curve have had a very unusual history when it comes to attendance, so banking on what worked in the past won’t guarantee success going forward.

As a new franchise in 1999, the Curve were bound to have a honeymoon period, and attendance figures the first three years were good: 4,695 to 5,060 to 5,122.

Following the 2001 season, Lozinak sold the team to Greenberg, who came in and spent a lot of money doing a lot of new things to try and build attendance even more. That worked – with Martin on the staff at that point – as the franchise took off.

Greenberg and Todd Parnell coming on board with their energy and pizzazz extended the Curve’s honeymoon period by a few years. But as with anything, the honeymoon wears off over time with a franchise.

After plateauing at 5,970 in 2004, the attendance average dropped to 5,496 the next year and was down to 5,179 by 2008, Greenberg’s final year.

The Great Recession hit the country, and the Curve, along with the entire entertainment industry, faced difficulties. In 2009, attendance dipped below 300,000 for the first time (at 275,945) and didn’t get back to that figure for the following six years.

By hiring Martin, who has ties to the franchise, a sales background and connections to the local business community, Lozinak believes things can be back on the upswing.

“You’re always striving to improve your product, and I think we got the right guy to do that,” Lozinak said. “He has just had a terrific record, he has a lot of vision, a lot of energy. I think he’s going to be just wonderful for us. I would be very surprised if he failed.”

A big part of Martin’s appeal is his personal approach with fans. He was always a very public figure at games, and fans never forgot that or his friendly ways. Even though he hadn’t worked for the team since 2007, he said he’s had many situations over the years where he would be stopped by people around town who remember him from his Curve days.

Friday, he told a story of how Curve Booster Club member Eileen Snyder greeted him.

“She had said to me, ‘We really miss your enthusiasm here at the Curve,'” Martin said. “That’s what I feel I can bring to the Curve is the enthusiasm during your experience at the baseball field.”

Martin got his start in baseball working for Chuck Domino in Reading and with the Chuck & Parney show in Altoona, and those baseball executives are legendary for pushing the envelope with a lot of wacky ideas.

Lozinak is more of a low-key owner whose style is more conservative, so one thing to watch in the coming years will be if Martin is allowed to go all in on some goofy promotions the way the franchise did during his first stint.

“I did tell him that this was a family operation, and our No. 1 focus was to have the kids at the ballpark and family atmosphere,” Lozinak said.

Still, the owner does plan to given Martin an opportunity to put his imprint on the franchise with his own ideas.

“We’ll probably experiment with some things this year,” Lozinak said. “We’ll start slow and let it build. We can’t jump in both feet if we don’t know how to swim. We’ll see what he comes up with, and I’m very open to doing whatever he wants to do.”