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Bridgeport Bluefish hits 20th season – but a 21st may be in doubt

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As it enters its 20th season, the Bridgeport Bluefish baseball team finds itself at something of a crossroads. Attendance has been relatively flat for the past few years, principal owner and CEO Frank Boulton has personally spent what he says is “a lot of money” to keep the team afloat and there’s at least a chance that the team will have to look for a new home when its lease at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard expires this year.

Still, Boulton told the Business Journal, “The 20 years have gone pretty quickly, which speaks to the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun … I guess.”

Running the Bluefish as well as the Atlantic League in which it plays can be fun, Boulton said, but it can be challenging as well. While the team’s sponsors run an impressive gamut – from national companies such as Boar’s Head, McDonald’s and Allstate to firms in Bridgeport and surrounding towns like All Kids Dental, transportation company Dattco and Scap Auto Group in Fairfield – Boulton feels that more need to step up to the plate.

“We need more corporate support,” he said. “I don’t mean corporate welfare, but something that would be a small piece of their marketing budget. You’ve got a captive audience of 185,000 to 200,000 people a season, who are sitting there for maybe up to three hours. They notice those signs and it can make the difference in whether they go to that store after the game.”

According to Ballpark Digest, the Bluefish finished the 2016 season with a total attendance of 183,921 – a 4 percent decline from the previous year’s 192,466, and the lowest of the Atlantic League’s eight teams both years.

Boulton maintains that total attendance was actually up last year thanks to such events as its annual “Battle of the Sexes” fast-pitch softball exhibition game and Nitro Circus, an “action sports collective” featuring dirt bike stunts that Boulton said did standing-room-only business at the 5,300-seat park. Such events are not included in Ballpark Digest’s calculations, he said.

The Bluefish boss’ creation of the Atlantic League was spurred by the New York Mets’ objecting to his proposed 1992 relocation of his minor league team affiliated with the Bronx Bombers, the Albany-Colonie Yankees, to Long Island. (The Albany-Colonie squad is today the Richmond (Va.) Flying Squirrels, the San Francisco Giants’ AA team.)

Frank Boulton

Six years later the Atlantic League was born, with the Bluefish one of its original teams. The team was founded by a group including former Pennsylvania state Sen. Jack McGregor, his wife Mary-Jane Foster, and Mickey Herbert, onetime president/CEO of ConnectiCare and now president/CEO of The Bridgeport Regional Business Council.

Prior to the 2006 season, the team was bought by a group of investors that included McGregor and Foster, Get Hooked LLC, which in turn sold it to Boulton in 2008.

Boulton is also founder and CEO of the Long Island Ducks, another charter Atlantic League team. It has been considerably more successful than the Bluefish, with an annual average attendance of 360,000, according to Ballpark Digest. The Ducks won back-to-back league championships in 2012 and ’13, while the Bluefish have not made the playoffs since 2010.

Joining the Bluefish and Ducks in the League’s Liberty Division are the Somerset Patriots, based in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and the New Britain Bees, formed in 2016 from the ashes of the New Britain Rock Cats of the Eastern League. The Atlantic League’s Freedom Division consists of the Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers, Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters and York (Pa.) Revolution. Boulton said he expected the league to expand to 12 teams “at some point.” Talks have recently taken place with Atlantic City and Camden about starting teams in the Garden State.

It was Boulton’s idea to make the Atlantic League what he called “a boutique league consisting of the 200 best players not signed to a Major League organization in the world.” Onetime MLB stars like Tim Raines, Carlos Baerga, Rickey Henderson and Chien-Ming Wang all spent time in the league, with Bluefish alums including Edgardo Alfonzo, Shea Hillenbrand and Wily Mo Peña. Last year Bridgeport offered former football player Tim Tebow a contract. This year’s roster includes former Mets and Seattle Mariners outfielder Endy Chávez.

The team has also had promotional nights featuring “guest managers” like Pete Rose, Roger Clemens and Paul O’Neill, though he said softball star Jennie Finch’s stint last May proved to be one of the most popular.

This year Boulton hopes to have the likes of Herbert and other key on- and off-field figures involved in the 20th anniversary; plans are for the Bluefish’s annual “Legends” game to be extra-celebrity-filled as well, he said. Twentieth-anniversary merchandise will also be for sale throughout the season, which begins April 28 at 4:05 p.m. against the Blue Crabs – the same time that its first-ever game took place in 2008 – following a season-opening road trip to Sugar Land.

“This is all about making sure our fans see a quality game, at an affordable price and in a family atmosphere, where the hot dogs are hot and the cold drinks are cold,” Boulton said. The top ticket price of $14 has remained unchanged since 2007, he said.

“Electricity and other utilities keep going up, but we’ve held our ticket prices in place.”

Still, money is very much on Boulton’s mind. Bridgeport instituted a 5 percent admissions tax on tickets costing over $10 to for-profit sports events and concerts, with both the ballpark and the 10,000-seat Webster Arena nearby being the most obvious marks.

The ballpark is also due to have its exemption to the state’s 10 percent admissions tax expire on June 30. State Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, who secured the exemption that began on July 1, 2015, is fighting to extend that moratorium. “With the (Bridgeport) City Council’s action, the Bluefish would go from a zero percent admissions tax to 15 percent,” Santiago said. “They would have to pass that on to the consumer and make their games less affordable.”

Santiago said that Webster Arena, as well as New Britain Stadium and Hartford’s XL Center and its troubled, under-construction Dunkin’ Donuts Park, are already exempt from the state tax.

“All you want in life is a level playing field and that’s all we’re asking for,” Boulton said.

Meanwhile, the Bluefish and Bridgeport extended the lease that expired last year so that the 20th anniversary could be observed at the ballpark, but beyond that the team’s future there is uncertain.

“Joe was there at the ribbon-cutting ceremony (in 1998), and we have a good relationship with him,” Boulton said of Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim. “We want to sit down with him during the season, and I think he does as well.”

Ganim – who was instrumental in bringing pro baseball back to the city for the first time since 1950, when the Bridgeport Bees, an affiliate of the then-Boston Braves, folded – sounded positive, calling Boulton “quite a guy” but noting that the issue “is unsettled at this point.”

As part of the one-year lease extension, under which the Bluefish is continuing to pay the city $150,000 in rent, it paid another $117,000 to settle a dispute over maintenance bills that began during the administration of Bill Finch, whose 2007-15 term as mayor overlapped Ganim’s time in prison on corruption charges. (Ganim, who served as mayor from 1991-2003, defeated Finch in ’15 to return to that office.)

The mayor said that cleaning up the dilapidated buildings along I-95, where the ballpark now stands, was one of his proudest accomplishments. And the Bluefish had helped send a signal to businesses and visitors alike that Bridgeport was again a destination city. Ganim’s anti-blight efforts are continuing as he strives to continue that momentum.

“You ask what value the Bluefish have brought to Bridgeport? You can’t put a price on it,” he said. “Their coming here really kick-started a lot of positive additional developments over the past 20 years.

“They planted a flag in the ground,” Ganim said. “Now the question is, what do we do next? If we can keep them here, that would be a wonderful thing. But we need to look at what other opportunities may be out there.”

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