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Cougars aiming to cash in on Cubs cachet

Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 5:32 a.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Attendance for Kane County Cougars games at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva is up over last year in the team's first year as a Cubs affiliate.

Clubhouse manager Scott Anderson and Ozzie T. Cougar mascot portrayer Mike Forrest eyeball the crowd during each Cougars home game and make a friendly wager on its count.

Through 36 openings this season, the safe path to bragging rights is a guess in the neigborhood of 5,465 fans. That's the average attendance at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, a figure 590 fans ahead of the same juncture last season.

Cougars general manager Curtis Haug can't help feeling blue when crunching the numbers, a nod to the predominant color of the parent club residing about an hour down the road. Haug expected a bump when the Cougars and Cubs announced a two-year player-development contract in September, which helps explain his comfort in discussing it.

"There's really no other way to say it other than the fact that overall, the ticket sales are up significantly, and they continue to trend that way," Haug said. "Now, if we could just get Mother Nature to cooperate with us a little bit, I think we'll have a huge, huge second half of the season."

The Midwest League waded through more rainouts in April than during the entire 2012 season, a statistic underscored by the Cougars' 70 for 70 perfection in fitting in home games last year.

The club has 31 scheduled home games remaining in the second half, setting its maximum of 2013 openings at 67. Either way, executives focus on the average.

With home series set for five of the season's final nine weekends – including those over the Independence Day and Labor Day holidays – Haug is optimistic the Cougars can supplant last season's average of 5,587, which ranked third in the 16-team MWL. Staying ahead of the weather will help, which is a focus around the league after a wet first half.

"It wasn't real bad, but we're in the red a little bit," MWL president George Spelius said. "I'm sure we'll catch up with it or [be] close to it, you know what I mean."

Since relocating from Wausau, Wis., to Geneva before the 1991 season, the Cougars have provided the MWL with a fan base that routinely pulls the league's average attendance higher.

Last season marked the first time the Cougars fell below 400,040 fans since 1993. The team attracted at least 500,000 fans from 2001-06, when it was affiliated with Florida and Oakland.

Throw in the Cubs connection and a stable of highly touted prospects that includes center fielder Albert Almora and first baseman Dan Vogelbach, and Haug only figured the interest would grow. Then again, this already was one of the pre-eminent operations in the minor leagues.

"Whether it's the billboards that the Cubs have in the outfield or the logos in the lawn area or the fans sitting in the seats that are wearing Cubs paraphernalia – the jerseys and the T-shirts and the caps and all that – it's definitely noticeable," Haug said. "But there's still that, 'Hey, we're the Cougars and we've got a great brand and we've been here 23 seasons.' But being affiliated with the Cubs is definitely a great thing for us."

The game-day experience also excites visiting players. Sam Roberts, a second baseman in the Oakland organization, played with Burlington at the end of last season and now suits up for Beloit after the A's also signed a new PDC in September.

Neither city averaged more than 1,096 fans from 2010-12.

"When we did stay, the hotel's really nice [at Pheasant Run Resort]," Roberts said. "Normally, you get a pretty good crowd. They're always into it, so I enjoy it, for the most part."

Beloit returns to Geneva in late August, closing out a summer in which the Cougars expect to attract the franchise's 10 millionth fan.

"We've got a lot in store in the second half, and we're looking forward to it," Haug said. "And we're looking forward to seeing people here at the ballpark enjoying themselves."

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