MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Christian rock concerts and bobble head dolls of bible characters have long been features of minor league baseball and football games. Faith night is an especially popular promotion at minor league parks in the south. More than 40 teams aim this kind of entertainment at their church-going fans. The formula has worked well in Nashville, where it began, and now the program is being called up to the Major Leagues.
NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
(Soundbite of MLB game)
AUDIE CORNISH reporting:
Sports fanatics are often described as having a new religious devotion to their favorite team, but Reverend Ryan Bennett takes things to a whole new level with his sermons outside Greer Stadium.
Tonight's parable is drawn from the 1986 Red Sox/Mets World Series.
Reverend RYAN BENNETT (director of Faith Night for the Nashville Sounds): Whenever you feel dejected, whenever you feel (unintelligible) bless your heart. Whenever you feel like everybody is looking at you know that there is a God who tells you my grace is sufficient.
CORNISH: Bennett is director of Faith Night for the city's triple A baseball team, the Nashville Sounds. But Faith Night fans aren't just in it for the baseball allegories.
Reverend BENNETT: How you guys doing tonight? Good?
(Soundbite of music)
CORNISH: There are special performances by Christian rock groups. There's a raffle for bobble head dolls in the image of Moses and Jonah. Later this evening, there will be a stadium-wide Bible giveaway and the event often includes a team player in full uniform as a special guest speaker.
Unidentified man: And it's wonderful for a person like me to be able to share time with you today, but also to be out on the field and do what we always try to do and that is just to glorify a supreme being.
CORNISH: And, of course, the game.
(Soundbite of fans screaming)
Since the team started Faith Night games five years ago, they've been among the best selling. Organizers say it's because of people like Methodist pastor Jacob Armstrong, whose church group of 80 plus is taking up most of the section behind home plate.
Pastor JACOB ARMSTRONG (Methodist): I know several families have invited friends and so it's a non-threatening way to get people to come to a church group and then maybe they'll come back to church again.
CORNISH: But will a Bible belt minor league promotion work at major league prices? Brent High hopes so. High is founder of Faith Night and CEO of Third Coast Sports. He says it's not just baseball clubs. Two NFL football teams and another three NBA basketball clubs have contacted him about holding Faith Night programs.
Mr. BRENT HIGH (Third Coast Sports): I just don't anticipate it offending a non-Christian fan at any point. It's just, it's not happened yet and I just don't see us adding anything that would do so, because ultimately the second we do that, the teams lose interest.
CORNISH: That's why Faith Night performances are scheduled before or after the official game and held off to the side or on a stadium concourse. Bible giveaways are handled through a redeemable coupon system at the gate and if you don't want a Moses bobble head doll, well, just say so. Sounds General Manager Glenn Yeager says it' a balancing act.
Mr. GLENN YEAGER (General Manager, Nashville Sounds): We do thirsty Thursdays on Thursday nights. You know? It's beer today, God tomorrow. So it's managing the expectations of your fan base.
CORNISH: And so the major league baseball teams working with Third Coast Sports are taking vastly different approached.
Mr. DERRICK HALL (Arizona Diamond Backs): We've shied away from a Faith Night. That's not something that we think is appropriate for us, but we absolutely have no problem selling group discount rates.
CORNISH: Derrick Hall is the executive vice president for the Arizona Diamond Backs. They've booked just one game with Third Coast this season. Meanwhile the Atlanta Braves has set up several dates with their own pitcher, John Smoltz, as guest speaker.
Braves Senior Marketing Executive Derek Schiller.
Mr. DEREK SCHILLER (Atlanta Braves Marketing Executive): We do know that through a lot of our research that we have a lot of fans that are religious in nature, so this is just a way to apply ourselves and create an experience that would be good for those types of fans.
CORNISH: Both teams say they've dabbled in marketing group sales to churches before, but nothing as elaborate as the original Faith Night model. These summer games are just a test, says Shiller, because in the end, it's all about the ball game.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.
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