Praying for More Than a Win

By Mary Schmitt Boyer
Religion News Service
Saturday, October 14, 2006

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. If the prayers were for victory, they didn't 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, 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 such biblical characters as Moses and 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 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 by 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 2005, 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 and 15 percent, or 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," High said.

"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 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."

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