Josh Buchholz and his staff have solidified their independent baseball organization as one of Fargo’s great summer traditions. From putting a talented product on the field to providing endless entertainment in between innings, the RedHawks always know how to arouse the crowd at Newman Outdoor Stadium.
In 1996, Madison, Wisc. welcomed in their first independent baseball organization. With ownership headed by local attorney Patrick Sweeney and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, the Madison Black Wolf made their presence known immediately in the Northern League. The Black Wolf finished 44-41 and advanced their way into the league semifinals before losing to the eventual league champs St. Paul Saints. The Black Wolf popularity was rising in Madison, or so it had been predicted. After the ’96 season, the Black Wolf saw its attendance fall year by year. Warner Park only saw 700 fans a night during the 1998 season and it only got worse from there. By 2000, Sweeney and his partners sold the team, killing professional baseball in Madison for good.
The same year the Black Wolf took the field as an expansion Northern League franchise, a new organization began in Fargo. The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks ran onto the field at Newman Outdoor Stadium for the first time, embarking on what would be a journey of success that has continued well into this summer. But why did the RedHawks, now in the American Association, outlast the Black Wolf, a franchise that entered during the same season?
To find the answer, you must first understand independent baseball organizations. “There is a typical life cycle for a lot of minor league teams,” explained RedHawks General Manager Josh Buchholz. “You get the new stadium, fans show up and it’s great. Then you kind of have this plateau and then you kind of slowly drop down and then you find your level.” The RedHawks had the new stadium, a relatively hungry fan base yearning for a summer baseball team and a product on the field with loads of potential.
In its inaugural season, the RedHawks experienced the same success as the Black Wolf, taking it a step further into the Northern League championship game against the Saints. The on-field winning tradition continued and the RedHawks made the playoffs nine times in its first 10 summers of existence, including Northern League championships in ‘98 and ‘03.
But Buchholz said the organization began its dreaded plateau around the mid-2000s. “It could have gone one way or another,” explained Buchholz, who slowly realized the independent league life cycle was catching up with the RedHawks. “Luckily we were able to pull ourselves up and really refocus the branding and focus on what we wanted to do and what we were trying to do at the games.”
President Bruce Thom, CEO Brad Thom and Buchholz refused to let their baseball team drown in the shallow market of independent baseball and promised not to have the same fate as the Black Wolf. Although it is still disputed, it’s generally believed that the Black Wolf folded because of dwindling attendance and a poor record. So how could the successful RedHawks possibly plateau as an independent franchise?
“I think we had to give them (the fans) a reason to keep coming back,” said Buchholz, who has been a part of the organization since day one. He believes the solution was in the hands of the marketing staff.
“We take pride in being family friendly and affordable fun.”
Not everyone likes baseball, but we’re more than just baseball; we have the game within the game,” says Karl Hoium. “That’s when my job comes in.” Hoium’s official title with the RedHawks is Director of Promotions & Merchandise, but he’ll be the first to tell you employees in the RedHawks front office have many responsibilities. Hoium’s blonde hair is usually covered with a ball cap and headset during the game, when he’s spotted directing everyone’s movement for the middle-inning entertainment the RedHawks have become known for.
A league-mandated 90 seconds between innings restricts Hoium’s team from anything outrageous, but dance competitions and kids racing have become complimentary entertainment while attending games. The RedHawks have averaged over 3,500 fans a game since entering the American Association in 2011, ranking in the top five of the league every season. Michael Larson believes it’s a combination of the team and the growth of the Fargo market that has played a key role in the RedHawks escaping the feared plateau of an independent franchise.
“We don’t usually try to convince people to come to games. We like to remind them ‘Hey, we have a game tonight,’” said Larson, who acts as the franchise’s Director of Ticket Operations. Larson has been with the RedHawks since 2008 and explained the number of season ticket holders has hit a new high this season at 1,100. He’s seen that growth from markets outside of Fargo, too. “When we started, Grand Forks was roughly one percent of our sales on the year. It’s now up to five percent.” Larson now says the RedHawks have seen people from Detroit Lakes to Valley City coming to enjoy games in Fargo.
The demise of an independent baseball team like the Black Wolf has been avoided in Fargo as the RedHawks are again enjoying another great summer of baseball both on the field and in the front office. “We’re a smaller market, but we’re one of the top franchises in independent baseball; there’s no doubt in my mind,” says Buchholz, who truly believes the RedHawks have solidified themselves as one of the area’s greatest summer traditions.