The Four Fathers of Ballparks of America
21 May, 2020By: Ashley Whittaker
How Ballpark’s “Baseball Dads” are restoring, rebounding, and re-energizing America’s Baseball Destination
Driving into Branson, Missouri, is an experience. You’re cruising south off highway 65 from Springfield and find yourself suddenly surrounded by a barrage of brightly colored signage for Madam Tussaud’s, two-story go-karts, themed restaurants, Presley’s Jamboree and Dolly Parton’s Stampede in a style reminiscent of old Vegas.
Competing for every spare inch of windshield space are billboards advertising attractions ranging from aerial adventure at Fritz’s, the Silver Dollar City theme park, Branson Landing, and more authentic Ozark-themed treats like Grandma Ruth’s Old-Fashioned Cinnamon Rolls. Nestled in this vacationer’s paradise, quite literally in the center of the nation, is a baseball destination that needs no introduction: Ballparks of America.
With its signature red roofs, Ballparks of America is a sports facility with an interesting past and bright future, thanks to its new ownership team. Originally conceived and built by a group of investors out of Chicago, the park opened in 2016 after two years of renovation work and unveiled its signature feature: five replica fields modeled after Major League stadiums including Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Following several years of building a great brand and fan-favorite tournament experience, the facility was purchased by a group of ‘baseball dads’ – who happen to be uniquely suited to undertake a project of this size.
The ‘baseball dads’ include Paul Satterwhite and Greg Snider who have partnered with Dale Helle, and Steve Strobel, local businessmen from neighboring Springfield. Satterwhite and Snider have been coaching their club baseball teams, both in the Springfield Mavericks organization, and playing at Ballparks of America for several years.
As anyone does while sitting in such a venue, the pair often considered what they might do if the place was theirs to own and operate. Dale Helle, who was the original General Contractor on the conversion of the project from mall to baseball complex, and Steve Strobel, a local CPA and entrepreneur, completed the new ownership team who officially took over the facility in February of this year.
The Ballparks Vision
Imagine you’re ten years old, arriving at Ballparks for the very first time. You’re in the back seat of the car as it turns off the 76 – or maybe you enter from the “blue route” on the other side of the park – and start to get glimpses of the fields. As the car turns into the parking lot, your chest is tight with excitement. You and your parents walk through the main entrance underneath the red roofs and suddenly there it is – St. Louis field in all it’s perfect-turf glory, complete with the St. Louis arch in the grass, just like the real thing. You feel the rush of adrenaline tingle across your spine as you start to imagine yourself playing on that very field in just a few short hours.
This is the big-league feeling that inspires teams from coast-to-coast and internationally to travel to Branson and visit Ballparks each year. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the facility is packed with teams embracing the ‘stay and play’ model of Ballparks. Each week of the summer season the dorms are packed and re-packed with rowdy pre-teen baseball players and their dedicated coaches and supportive parents.
The new owners are investing heavily into their park to maintain the pristine playing conditions, “big league” environment, and to enhance the overall guest experience. From new and enhanced dining options to a reimagined pro shop and registration area, the upgrades to the facility are focused on maintaining its place as a coveted national and international place to play.
The overall venue is built for baseball players 10-14 years of age, the owners are also considering how they can bring the magic of Ballparks to new audiences. From adding girls’ softball events to local adult leagues, and even maybe a 5K race or two, there are new things in the works for Ballparks.
The concept of memory making is a big part of the new owner’s vision for Ballparks. As athletes, coaches, sports parents, and entrepreneurs, Greg, Paul, Dale, and Steve understand the value and meaning of sport at a very personal level. The group knows that most of the kids that play on their fields, in their summer tournaments, or even at the Major 70 Cal Ripken World Series aren’t going to grow up to be professional athletes. What’s recognized across the board is that sport is the vehicle for larger life lessons like self-discipline and accountability. Couple this with a week of a sleep-away camp experience in on-site dorms and you have a recipe for real-life lessons in independence and responsibility and, of course, fun.
The #morethanbaseball has been often used to describe Ballparks and it’s not a cliché. If you speak to a member of the ownership group, you’re bound to hear the mantra that “Ballparks is bigger than baseball” and if you stick around long enough (like a week-long stay in the dorms), you’ll understand it. Even more than the opening ceremonies, the live streaming, or the top-notch competition you can expect at Ballparks, it’s the memories that keep clubs and teams coming back year after year. The camaraderie built in shared dining spaces, late-night wiffleball or kickball games and in the recreation rooms is not soon forgotten by players.
What’s also #morethanbaseball is the Ballparks impact upon the City of Branson. The ever-evolving city has been welcoming visitors for well over a century for the beautiful landscape, outdoor activities, and hospitality. Now, thanks to Ballparks, travel sports tourism is also a powerful draw. Each year Ballparks of America draws thousands of players and their families from across the country to their facility. These families represent a prized demographic for Branson and its abundance of incredible attractions, hotels, and restaurants.
In just the first four months of 2020, the park has gotten new owners, new upgrades, new SFM management team, and now – new challenges with COVID-19. Needless to say, the world has been turned upside-down with the statewide shelter in place orders, travel bans, and shifting economics. Big questions remain across the sports tourism industry as to how quickly we can recover, rebound, and re-open. Shared by many in the industry and by the Ballparks owners is the confidence that teams will be back to playing in no time.
In fact, Ballparks is set to host their first event of the year on Memorial Day weekend and the owners plan to host their summer season as scheduled. There are new events being organized for late August and September to give teams a chance to play ball one more time before the season comes to an end.
In spite of COVID-19, there’s demand in the marketplace to support their slated events; daily e-mails and calls are pouring in from coaches and parents across the country hoping to get one of the last spots for their teams. The Ballparks owners and staff have been working around the clock to prepare to receive guests safely and still provide a great player and family experience. From social distancing markers, screening and safety signage, enhanced cleaning policies, and by following the recommendations of the CDC, state, and local government, the team is ready to play ball now more than ever.
As if coordinating upgrades to their new facility, hosting local practices to get ready for their big events, working with their SFM management team and re-writing safety policies and procedures for COVID-19 weren’t enough, the owners are also preparing for a huge year in 2021. The teams, both national, and international, that have had to cancel this year, have shown a strong interest in Ballpark’s 2021 season.
If you have the opportunity to meet one of the baseball dads of the new ownership group, you might find that it isn’t a novel sort of optimism that is driving this project forward. There is a strategy, a collaboration, and a shared belief in the power of sport that unites this team and that will carry Ballparks into the future. 2020 will be a year many look back on as a year of challenges and setbacks. For this ownership team, it will be the beginning of a new era at Ballparks of America. SDM