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Virginia, Oklahoma series brings success on field, box office, local businesses
The teams’ first look at the baseball setting which frames Blue Wahoos Stadium created a lasting impression during the inaugural Wahoos Classic.
Before unpacking their equipment, players on both the Oklahoma Sooners and Virginia Cavaliers reached for cellphones.
“It’s really cool to play in a stadium that is kept up super-nice like this,” said Oklahoma first baseman Tyler Hardman, who created his own memory by blasting the only home run struck in last weekend’s, three-game event – a cannon shot that headed into the water beyond left field and helped the 19th-ranked Sooners to a series-deciding victory.
“You get out the first day and everyone has phones out taking pictures of where you’re going to play,” said the Sooners’ junior first baseman, after his team won the twinbill 7-2 and 5-1, following a 6-0 loss in Friday’s opening game. “It is just really cool to have that experience on different fields and we’re super appreciative for it.”
The event was beneficial in other ways, too.
Blue Wahoos team president Jonathan Griffith said the three-game event, which included a schedule change into a doubleheader last Saturday, thus avoiding inclement weather the next day, generated approximately $500,000 in economic impact for the Pensacola area.
Money spent included hotel rooms for the teams, support staff, players’ parents and fans traveling to Pensacola, ticket sales, transportation, meals at area restaurants, merchandise purchased at the stadium and concession sales.
Saturday’s doubleheader attracted more than 1,400 fans, which was among the largest crowds for a non-Blue Wahoos game at the ballpark. Included in attendance were a large number of Major League Baseball scouts representing various teams to check out talent on the field.
“We basically had 600 people coming from out of town for the games,” he said. “They flew down here. They used local bus companies. They used local restaurants for catering. They used local hotels and some Airbnbs.
“We had rooms booked through ResortQuest, our Highpointe Hotels. By using a lot of local businesses in town who we work with, it drove business to all of those different locations.
“To me, it’s about what did it do for the local economy here.”
The games were televised by Cox Sports Television and aired throughout the nation, including the Washington, D.C. market and in Oklahoma. The weather for both game days was clear-blue sky and multicolor sunsets, so that part became good fortune.
“Live television for two days is a big deal,” Griffith said. “That was essentially a television broadcast of ‘Come Visit Pensacola’ all over the country.”
The event was first broached seven years ago by UVA, which was looking for a season-opening place to play in 2020. Like most major college programs, Virginia fills a schedule years in advance.
Griffith said discussions have begun for the Cavaliers to return, possibly for an expanded event with more teams. That’s fine with Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor.
“Very, very happy,” O’Connor said. “Pensacola is a great community. They were great hosts. It’s a beautiful ballpark. They did a terrific job. The field plays really, really good. I hope we have the opportunity come back here, because it’s a first-class operation.
“It was a good crowd for two teams that are not from here. Really nice, energetic crowd so a good environment to play college baseball in, for sure.”
It was the first time either team had been to Pensacola or had anyone from the teams visit the ballpark. The newness of the venue, plus the reputation of Blue Wahoos Stadium, were among reasons why Oklahoma leaped at Virginia’s invitation to be the opponent.
“I think it was a breath of fresh air playing in a minor league stadium that they take care of so well,” said Sooners’ head coach Skip Johnson, who is in his 27th year as a college baseball coach. “The ground crew was unbelievable. I mean, everything we asked for, needed, they were always there for us.
“The biggest thing was more of the hospitality. The field played great, the mound was good. If I would have lost I would have said the same thing.”
The Wahoos Classic began a busy prelude to the Blue Wahoos opening day on April 9 against the Tennessee Smokies.
On March 6-8, Pensacola Sports is presenting the annual Cox Diamond Invitational, sponsored by Cox Communications. The participating teams are Troy University, Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and Michigan State, which is returning from a previous year in the event.
On March 16, Escambia High will host Gulf Breeze in one-game event. That will be followed on March 17 by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater – alma mater of Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer — traveling to Pensacola with other NCAA Division III teams — to play a full week of games.
The busy month concludes on March 26-27 with the “Battle of the Bay” prep tournament featuring Pensacola Catholic, Tate, West Florida High and Pace in a two-day tournament.