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Dec 12, 2012
@ 1:00 pm
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Ten Ways to Improve the Fan Experience at Minute Maid Park

I’m not going to BS anyone:  It sucks being an Astros fan right now.  The team is going through a full rebuild, there’s been an exodus of talent (both on and off the field), and fans aren’t showing up to games anymore.  Oh?  You wanted to watch the games on TV?  CSN Houston channel is only available to three subscribers at one time.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Thing is, Astros fans are actually pretty lucky in one respect:  Minute Maid Park is actually a really nice place to watch a baseball game.  It’s much more intimate than the Astrodome ever was and the traffic situation (getting in and out) is 100 times better.  Oh, I know.  There’s lots of unnecessary quirk scattered throughout, but the facility itself and the viewpoints of the field are excellent.  Hey, you know what else is nice?  Sitting in air conditioning during the dog days of Texas Summer.  How’s that Arlington weather treating you, Rangers fans?

Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement.  Here are ten ways to improve the fan experience at Minute Maid Park.

10. Fix the jumbled mess otherwise known as the video board.

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Don’t get me wrong—I love the new HD video board in center field.  It is a massive upgrade over the old one (both literally and figuratively).  The problem is it’s a jumbled mess.  There’s way too much information, so it’s difficult to take a quick glance to get the most important information a scoreboard provides.  So, here’s an idea:  Take away some of the less pertinent information (like pitcher stats, run expectancy, player facts) from the big board and relocate that info to other smaller boards throughout the stadium.  Increase the size of the area showing the innings, outs, and balls/strikes.  The design of the big board should be clean, uncluttered, and easy to read (that also means a limited color palette of white on black—or vice versa—that’s high in contrast).

9. Replace the home run train already.

It’s cheesy and now partly blocked by the new, hideous community partners billboard in left field.  My suggestion?  A Saturn V rocket.  You know—the thing that got us to the Moon?  Here’s a refresher: 

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Because the real rocket is gigantic, make a scaled replica, laid on its side, that fills the entire area where the train tracks are currently.  You can have it light up and smoke during a home run if you really want some sort of home run display.

The point is that Houston has a very special thing with its association with NASA and outer space.  That’s something no other pro-sports team can claim, so it really makes sense for the Astros to try and play that up. 

8. Hire a few familiar faces to meet and greet fans.

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You know what would be cool?  If the Astros brought back some of their more memorable faces in franchise history just to mingle with the fans.  No, I’m not talking about a pre-game autograph session.  I mean just hire guys like Jose Cruz or Larry Dierker to walk the concourses, shake a few hands, and maybe sit an inning or two in the stands with the fans.  Considering all the familiar faces lost since new ownership has taken over, I think many fans would really appreciate this gesture.

7. Improve the food and drink situation.

The City of Houston is a vibrant, growing city with nationalities from all over the globe.  And because of that, there are tons of great ethnic restaurants throughout the metro area.  Thing is, when you go to a game at Minute Maid Park, you’d never know that.  The majority of the food offered is bland and unimaginative:  Nachos, popcorn, hot dogs.  Sure, there’s a few small kiosks (if you can find them) serving Texas BBQ or sliders (small hamburgers), but that’s about as exotic as it gets.  Astros, it’s time to step your culinary game up.  You want to cater to a rising Latino market, but you don’t offer elotes or have anything resembling an authentic street taco?  You want to be a world class organization, but you don’t serve any sort of Asian food (even though Houston has a giant Asian population)? 

Additionally, let’s talk about the alcoholic beverage selection—or lack thereof.  I’d love to have a good beer (by that, I mean something not made by Budweiser, Coors, or Miller) at the game but I don’t feel like waiting in line an entire inning from the three kiosks in the stadium to get one.  Serve good imported and/or local beers at the game and have it readily available everywhere.  Heck, you could even BREW your own beer on site, that’d only be available at home games, and really give the fans a treat!

6. Or, heck, just park a few food trucks near the front gate.

Okay, I can be a realist.  Maybe the better food and drink thing really isn’t possible with your food services contract through Aramark?  Then give the fans the next best thing by allowing 5-10 gourmet food trucks to park outside the main gates for games.  You already have an open food policy, so what’s the problem here?  Give the fans better options for food and drink and you will end up with a more loyal fan base.

5. Go wild with the promotions.

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Nobody is showing up to the games because the team is horrible?  Then it’s time to get really creative and come up with some great promotions.  Bobbleheads and souvenir jerseys, but they’ve been done to death.  Here’s a few new ideas:

-Killer bee plush dolls with the faces of some of the more memorable “Killer B’s.”  The Tampa Bay Rays already did something similar with the Don Zimmer teddy bear (see above), so why not do something similar for Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman?

-Have a contest to let fans design a uniform (or uniforms) to be worn later in the season.  A few professional baseball teams have done this before and I think it’s a pretty neat way to get the fans involved.  Last summer, Uniwatch (a sports uniform website) asked its readers to “redesign the Astros.”  Have a look at some of the submissions here

-Give the fans a point card system that can be redeemed for prizes.  The more games you attend, the more points you accrue.  You could then redeem these points for a prize.  Perhaps one game gets you an Astros pencil and all home games gets a pro-model jersey or team signed ball?

4. Let fans sit wherever they want after the 5th inning. 

Give those who attend games the option to buy a cheap ticket and allow them move down to any unoccupied seat of their choice after the 5th inning.  If there’s plenty of open box seats during a home game, what’s the big deal?  It’s a nice perk for the fans and, for the benefit of the organization, will make games look a little bit more occupied for those watching on TV.  

3. Offer free wi-fi throughout the stadium. 

I can’t tell you how annoying it is that I come to a game, try and look up something on my phone, and have it search endlessly before eventually timing out.  This is not rare occurrence either.  Setup a free wi-fi system so that the fans can stay more connected. 

2. Retire J.R. Richard’s uniform number.

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Look, Richard was not just another player.  He had the potential to be something special, maybe even a Hall of Famer.  Unfortunately, he had a stroke—resulting from a misdiagnosis by team doctors, mind you—and nearly died while warming up BEFORE A GAME. 

Jim Umbricht died of cancer while a member of the Colt .45s.  His number was retired.  Darryl Kile died while a member of the CARDINALS and got a small plaque INSIDE Minute Maid Park.  J.R. Richard?  He lived—and got a tile on the sidewalk outside the stadium.  This seems hardly fair or right. 

(I recommend reading John Royal’s take on the situation here.  He does a much better job of arguing the case for Richard than I ever could.)

1. Last but certainly not least, SPEND SOME DAMN MONEY ON THE PAYROLL! 

Mr. Crane, we all know you’ve got money to spend.  This team has $800k in payroll commitments and clearly needs an infusion of talent just to not lose 110 games next year.  I’m not saying we should abandon the rebuild effort—far from it, actually—but the Astros really could spend $20-40 million this season on short term free agents to at least make the team somewhat interesting and competitive.  Think about it, will ya?