When the Lehigh Valley IronPigs opened the gates of Coca-Cola Park for the first time on March 30, 2008, for an exhibition game against the Phillies, the local entertainment landscape — not to mention the skyline of downtown of Allentown — looked vastly different than it does today.
The Sands casino in Bethlehem and its concert-drawing Event Center had yet to open. Neither had the ArtsQuest complex on Bethlehem's South Side.
And there was certainly no downtown arena and accompanying buildings sprouting a few miles away in the heart of Allentown.
While these new ventures have certainly enhanced the quality of life and changed the image of a region that had little identity other than being the former home of Mack Trucks and Bethlehem Steel, they've also intensified the battle for the entertainment dollar.
Make no mistake, the IronPigs have been a smash hit from Day 1, averaging more people than permanent seats (8,089) at Coca-Cola Park for all six years of their existence.
They hit an all-time high in 2012 with 688,821 fans — an average of 9,153 per game — and had 64 sellouts.
A rainy and chilly spring a year ago dropped the average to 9,016, but the IronPigs' average attendance was still second best in the International League behind only Columbus.
The IronPigs are the only minor league franchise to eclipse 600,000 in overall attendance the past six years.
But the question is, as the IronPigs prepare to begin season No. 7 this week, can this unprecedented level of success continue?
It's not as if Coca-Cola Park and the IronPigs are novelties.
And it's not as if there's absolutely nothing else to do around here. The PPL Center is already stealing headlines and the first puck won't drop for another six months.
There's no panic at 1050 IronPigs Way, however.
Kurt Landes, the team's president and general manager, said Monday during media day that sales of advance tickets are at the same level they were a year ago.
The late February announcement about the new bacon-oriented logos has merchandise flying off the shelves. The bacon is sizzling, if you will.
If the weather cooperates — especially in April when the team has 15 home games — the team may improve on its 2013 attendance.
So rather than fret, Landes looks at the increased competition as a compliment.
"When Coca-Cola Park was built, we were the first ones to bust down the door in terms of getting people to embrace a new facility and new entertainment," he said. "The success we've had really helped to pave the way for the casino, SteelStacks, and certainly the new arena. We're proud of that."
Like a team on a hot streak, the IronPigs have wanted to maintain their core while adding new pieces. That's why the team is always trying something new — whether it's a new seating section, a new party patio or video games in the men's restrooms.
That's why the bacon blitz was unveiled this year after nearly every baseball fan in the Valley had purchased at least something with the old IronPigs logo.
"Even if there weren't the other facilities popping up, you have to keep reinventing yourself to stay fresh," Landes said. "You kind of get a seven-year itch. This market has great fans — that's No. 1. But to be No. 1 in minor league baseball, and be as bold and as unique has we've been, that takes brainstorming with the staff. We're always thinking of how we can get better."
Landes has had some nice weapons to work with over the first six seasons.
The first two years were pretty much all about seeing the new park and affiliated baseball in the Valley for the first time since 1960.
When the newness of the place wore off, along came the Triple-A All-Star Game in 2010 to help boost sales and interest.
Then in November 2010, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg was hired as the team's manager.
Sandberg was gone last year, but along came the Triple-A National Championship Game to serve as the centerpiece of the marketing plan.
This year there appear to be no tricks up the IronPigs' sleeves. They're going to rely on the mix that has worked so well for six seasons — baseball and family entertainment in a cozy, well-maintained venue and at a relatively low cost.
And if you get a glimpse of a hot prospect like Maikel Franco, or a proven star such as Ryan Howard or Chase Utley on a rehab assignment, it's a bonus.
Certainly Dave Brundage, back for his second season as IronPigs manager, would like to duplicate the team's success at the gate with his on-the-field product
"There's not too many situations in baseball like this," he said. "This is a unique place. There are Triple-A affiliates who are close by to the big-league club, and I came from one with Gwinnett and Atlanta.
"But that wasn't the same as here. You've got a built-in fan base with passionate fans and it certainly shows by filling this place up night after night and it didn't matter whether it was raining or sunny, or whether it was a 10:30, 1:30, 5:30 or 7 o'clock game. The people are here every day and I'll tell you what, that makes my job easy to get guys motivated and ready to play."
Landes has always said it's hard to measure the impact a winning team has on attendance, although it certainly can't hurt.
The one time the IronPigs made the playoffs, in 2011, Coca-Cola Park was electric, and that was while the Phillies were putting the finishing touches on one of the greatest regular seasons in franchise history.
"There are a lot of things that go into our success … the Phillies' success, the success of our own ticket staff, the ownership, the ideas … there's a hundred reasons, including weather," Landes said.
As for now, the attractions at the Sands, SteelStacks and a new minor-league sports team coming to town are not among those factors.
"We've created a family feeling here," Lindsey Knupp, director of promotions and entertainment, said. "There are challenges and you have to keep moving forward. But after the winter we've had, people want to get outside and go to a place they can leave their problems behind and have a good time for a few hours without breaking the bank. That's what we're all about and something you can't do anywhere else."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun