Teams Find a Marketing Home Run in Mixing Faith, Sports

c. 2006 Religion News Service CLEVELAND _ For months, the Cleveland Indians haven’t had a prayer of reaching the playoffs. But that didn’t stop the team from hosting its first Catholic Family Day with a 10:30 a.m. Mass in right field preceding a September afternoon game against the Minnesota Twins. The prayers didn’t quite work: […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

CLEVELAND _ For months, the Cleveland Indians haven’t had a prayer of reaching the playoffs.

But that didn’t stop the team from hosting its first Catholic Family Day with a 10:30 a.m. Mass in right field preceding a September afternoon game against the Minnesota Twins. The prayers didn’t quite work: The Indians fell to the Twins, 6-1.

The marriage of religion and athletics is nothing new, but with the increasing influence of Christian organizations and action groups, sports teams are realizing religion is big business.

Third Coast Sports is a Christian marketing firm in Nashville, Tenn., hired by teams to stage the increasingly popular Faith Nights or Faith Days, complete with a Christian music concert and testimonials from local sports figures, as well as occasional giveaways of Bibles or bobblehead figures of biblical characters such as Moses or Noah. While the firm sometimes gets a small percentage of each ticket sold, it makes most of its money by selling sponsorships to organizations trying to tap into the expanding Christian audience.

“The current climate has everything to do with the success of our events,” said Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports. “The 2004 presidential election, the success of Christian movies … the crossover hits in pop music by Christian bands … have made it easier for sports executives to wrap their arms around these events. They see the smart business in aligning themselves with these large, influential groups.”

Third Coast Sports is not responsible for all the religious programming that has blossomed this year. The San Francisco Giants held a Jewish Heritage Night earlier this summer, while the minor league High Desert Mavericks in Adelanto, Calif., held Mormon Night.

But the Nashville company is the most widely known promoter of Christian events at sports sites. With a well-established network of church communities as well as direct and grass-roots marketing and advertising campaigns, it promises attendance boosts _ and it delivers.

The Buffalo Bisons, the Class AAA farm team of the Indians, held three Faith Night promotions this season. According to General Manager Mike Buczkowski, the Bisons increased attendance about 1,000 fans _ or 10 percent _ each game.

The concept started several years ago when High, a deacon, youth minister and Sunday school teacher, was vice president of sales for the minor league Nashville Sounds baseball team. In 2004 and ’05, five of the Sounds’ top 10 crowds were on Faith Nights. High left the Sounds for Third Coast Sports about a year ago and has seen the company’s business almost quadruple. Last year, Third Coast Sports put on 23 events in 10 cities. This year, it hosted 76 events in 44 markets, including Atlanta, where the Braves say attendance increased between 10 percent and 15 percent _ by 3,000 to 4,500 fans _ on the first two Faith Days.

The increase pleases High. The attention surprises him.

“The amount of attention is surprising, for sure, as similar events have been going on for a long time,” said High.

“I think the reason these events are attracting so much attention now has to do with the attention we received at the Nashville Sounds in 2004 when we gave away Bible bobblehead dolls of Moses, Samson and Noah. We followed that up with Bible Giveaway Night. Those two promotions attracted a lot of national media attention.”

The events are held a decent interval before or after games so fans who do not want to attend will not be inconvenienced.

The only hitch so far came when Focus on the Family, one of eight sponsors of the first Faith Night in Atlanta, was not invited back. The organization handed out literature, as was permitted, but also referred fans to its Web site, http://www.troubledwith.com, which suggests homosexuality is a social problem similar to alcoholism.

Some religion scholars see the value of Faith Night from a business point of view, but don’t know what to make of it from a religion standpoint.

Timothy Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University and director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and author of the 2005 book, “Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange and the Substance of Faith.”

“I think this as a perfect example of a dilemma that goes to the heart of evangelical Christianity: getting the Gospel message out by whatever means necessary versus protecting and preserving the sacredness of the tradition,” Beal said.

“From a business perspective, it looks like a no-brainer. I mean, does it move product or not? For evangelicals, it’s hopefully a more complex matter, requiring some serious reflection.”

Added Joseph Kelly, chairperson of the department of religious studies at John Carroll University, “I’m not sure it’s good for religion, because sports commercialism can cheapen it.

“To use a parallel, at a beach in North Carolina, I was appalled at people who had American flag beach towels, which mean that they were sitting and walking on the flag. No doubt the manufacturers would claim to be patriotic, but I consider such things to be desecrating the flag. … Religious leaders may get on board the sports link initially, but how will they feel when they see Jesus in a Browns helmet or Moses in a Cavaliers uniform?”

Christian sports fans _ and the teams they root for _ seem to be embracing Faith Nights wholeheartedly. If it’s a little unorthodox, so be it.

After all, Third Coast Sports has a mission statement from 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

(Mary Schmitt Boyer writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)

KRE/RB END BOYER

Editors: To obtain photos from a Third Coast Sports event, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.