(Editor’s Note: This piece on the Hershey Bears first appeared on Lebanon Sports Buzz in July of 2012. It was reprinted by permission.)
BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS COURTESY OF HERSHEY BEARS
When the topic of speculation is ‘The Country’s Most Successful Sports Franchises’ who invariably pops into one’s mind? The Pittsburgh Steelers? The Los Angeles Lakers? The Chicago Blackhawks? The Philadelphia Phillies?
“The Yankees come to mind for me,” said Doug Yingst. “In the NHL who comes to mind is Detroit. In basketball, the Boston Celtics. And in football, the Green Bay Packers come to mind.”
Yingst knows a thing or two about successful sports franchises. He’s been a part of the Hershey Bears’ organization for the past 30 years, the last 15 of which have been as the franchise’s president and general manager.
Here’s the pressing question: ‘Are the Hershey Bears the most successful minor-league franchise in America?’.
“I think without doing extensive research, if we’re not the most successful minor-league franchise, we’d have to be in the top ten,” said Yingst. “There are some successful AAA baseball franchises. The Pawtucket Red Sox come to the mind. The Reading Phillies. But I think overall, if we’re not number one, we have to be close.”
But if Yingst has molded the Bears into what they are today, he has not employed one specific model. Because of Hershey’s unique position in the Lebanon, Harrisburg, Lancaster, York and Reading markets, Yingst has produced his own model of success, borrowing what works for other franchises and constantly tweaking.
“There was no single simple model,” said Yingst, a graduate of Palmyra High School. “What we’ve collectively done is researched what other franchises have done. Not everything in a major market is going to work in Hershey. Then we test it. We do surveys with our fans and get their input.”
When it comes to the components of successful franchises, Hershey has got it going on. The Bears are annually one of the American Hockey League’s top drawing franchises, Giant Center is a modern facility with all the perks, they have an unparralled AHL tradition and they offer talented players, knowledgeable coaches and experienced management.
“In our case, it’s our fan base,” said Yingst. “Our fan base in Hershey is extremely strong. Our season tickets are extremely strong. From Day One, it’s been successful.
“When Milton Hershey bought the franchise, it was with the idea of providing entertainment for the community,” Yingst continued. “It got off on the right foot. We’ve just been trying to increase those numbers.
Since Hershey founded the Bears in 1932, the franchise has been in operation over the past 73 years. In that time, Hershey has won 11 Calder Cup championships.
“It’s certainly enjoyable to be a part of this franchise and the history that it represents,” said Yingst. “We’ve enjoyed some success while I’ve been here. But we were extremely successful before that.”
“There is no question,”Yingst continued. “Winning is the best promotion. Lately, we’ve been very fortunate in that area. Saying that, we’ve had some lean years, but our fan base has remained the same. From Hersheypark Arena to Giant Center, it’s become even more of an entertainment product. We want fans to come and enjoy the night.”
Unlike most major sports, families can still enjoy a reasonably-priced night out at a Bears’ game.
“Holding the line on prices is extremely important to us,” said Yingst. “In the meetings we hold, we always feel there’s a threshold. ‘How do we keep our prices down?’ What it comes down to is a fan base. If our fan base wasn’t as strong, we couldn’t keep prices down.”
Reaching the top is one thing. Staying there another. In these difficult economic times, it is Yingst who is charged with that challenge.
“One thing in minor-league hockey, it’s very cyclical,” said Yingst. “You’re at the mercy of your major-league affiliate and their draft choices. We’ve been able to fill in enough voids. Our coaches and players understand the importance of the community. The way we’re maintaining it is with a very competitive on-ice product.
“We have a different affiliate arrangement than most AHL franchises,” Yingst concluded. “The Washington Capitals have been great. The coaches we’ve been able to bring in and develop, we’ve been fortunate in that way. What we’re looking for is character, chemistry, camaraderie and knowledge. We’ve been fortunate to have outstanding coaches.”