KAI RYSSDAL: Baseball games are less and less about baseball nowadays. Arizona's stadium has a swimming pool, there are firework displays and now something called Faith Nights. Rounding up local church groups for games has long been a tactic in the minor leagues. But tomorrow, the Atlanta Braves will host a Faith Day and a Christian rock concert. That's good news for one company in Nashville, Tenn., as Blake Farmer reports.
[SOUND: Want a free Bible? Great, enjoy.]
BLAKE FARMER: This is the stadium entrance for Nashville's minor league baseball team, the Sounds. A crew of enthusiastic volunteers is handing out camouflage Bibles. Acoustic Christian musicians entertain a growing crowd.
[MUSICICIAN SINGING: Holy . . . Holy is the Lord. Holy is the Lord.]
Outfielder Kennard Bibbs shares his testimony with the early-bird fans.
KENNARD BIBBS: Just through faith and having faith in the Lord and praying every night, he's given me the strength to keep going.
Here lies a new intersection of business and religion.
ANNOUNCER: I want to welcome you all to Faith Night, Nashville Sounds style. We're glad to have you all here.
The sales guys are glad too. They call it a no-brainer to offer these Faith Nights to boost attendance. There are about 3,000 Christian churches within a two-hour drive of the stadium. That's helped the events double the average game-day sales at times.
Brent High runs a relatively new company called Third Coast Sports that produces Faith Nights. Until last season, he worked for Nashville's team as director of sales. Now High provides music, giveaways, special guests and speakers for Faith Nights all over the country.
BRENT HIGH: It is an opportunity — unlike no other — to introduce people to the church in a setting that is not churchy.
This season the company has scheduled more than 70 events in 45 cities, even extending the invitation beyond the Bible Belt to places like Las Vegas and Buffalo.
The events have reached Arena Football and minor league hockey, but Major League Baseball is the first to take Faith Nights to the pros.
HIGH: I cold-called the Braves one day, strictly out of me being a huge fan of the Braves and thinking that what we had could benefit them. They've got 50,000 seats down there, and they need some help on certain days to put people in the stands.
Derek Schiller is the head of sales for the Atlanta Braves.
DEREK SCHILLER: You know, we're always interested in selling out our stadium.
Schiller says Faith Nights aren't much stranger than other promotions like "disco night" or "Asian heritage night" and he's got more than 80 home games to think about. The Braves average 32,000 fans at home. That leaves room for improvement.
The Braves thought carefully about Faith Nights before jumping in, and they did water it down a bit. No biblical bobblehead characters will be given away at the gate. The Christian concert after the game will require a special ticket. But star players will still share a Christian message with the audience.
Third Coast Sports hires a network of youth ministers and pulpit pastors to organize the churches in Faith Night cities. To build excitement, the company finds the movers and shakers. Allen Frans is one of those. He's a youth pastor at a church outside of Austin.
ALLEN FRANS: This really goes hand-in-hand with my job description — to build relationships with other churches, to get to know leaders in other churches, and do things together for the glory of God.
Frans hosts pastor luncheons where he encourages fellow ministers to organize churchwide Faith Night outings.
You might think some people would be in an uproar that religion is getting mixed in with a night at the ballpark. For the most part, they aren't. Aside from a few negative sports columns, sidewalk protesters aren't showing up to the ballparks. And there doesn't seem to be a silent controversy brewing.
One sales figure may end up in a slump, though. A local paper in Nashville jokes that the true fans attend Faith Nights because the beer line is short.
In Nashville, I'm Blake Farmer, for Marketplace.
A guitarist plays before a "faith night" crowd at a Nashville Sounds game.