NEW YORK — CAN baseball teams attract a younger - more action-oriented - audience by offering more than baseball?
The New York Mets are about to find out.
The club, in a joint venture with Viacom's Nickelodeon, has erected a mini-amusement area at Shea Stadium. Called ``Nickelodeon Extreme Baseball,'' the games have either a baseball theme or are linked to Nickelodeon, a children's television network.
There are ``skill'' games - such as throwing bean bags - found in any amusement arcade - but with a baseball/Nickelodeon theme. There is a batting cage with a ball machine zipping baseballs past 10-year-olds. There are various games with direct antecedents to the network, such as an obstacle course called ``Guts.'' There is a small theater where Extreme employees entertain young children. And, the entrance ticket ($5 for Mets ticket holders; $10 for non-ticket holders) includes a tour of some of Shea's facilities such as the Old Timers' locker room.
Although the area is adjacent to Shea Stadium, Mark Bingham, a vice president for marketing, says, ``We hope this develops as a stand-alone business - a destination point.''
At this size, however, it will never be another Disney-type location. The maximum daily capacity is 3,500 customers. At any given moment only 1,500 people can squeeze in. Executives expect parents and children to spend an average of three hours in the area.
Other stadiums and venues are watching the Shea project. ``There is interest from other owners,'' says Scott Davis, general manager and executive vice president of network operations for Viacom.
The company's plan is to carefully roll out the park. ``Until we are fully fleshed out and until we are comfortable with the quality, we are loathe to take it anywhere else,'' says Jack Mcdaniel, executive producer of the project. The current size is 25,000 square feet. But there is additional room to expand at Shea if the park proves popular. ``We want to look at this season and then do the things we can for next season,'' Davis says.
Although there are no rides at the moment, they have not been ruled out. ``They are not our preference,'' Davis adds. Rides are less interactive and add costs. So far Nickelodeon executives say the partners' total costs for the project are in the ``low millions.''
Although the Shea area is unique so far, other owners are trying to find ways to cater to younger baseball fans. For example, at Cleveland's new stadium, Jacobs Field, there is a children's area with plastic toys and climbing structures. Parents can actually see the field from this right-field area or watch the game on television sets.
Baseball commentators agree that the sport needs to attract younger fans. ``The cultivation of young fans has gone by the wayside,'' bemoans Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College and author of the book, Baseball and Billions. For example, he notes that this year there is not a single weekend day game on national television and no World Series games in the afternoon. He calls the Shea park, ``a welcome effort.''