NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Clutching a bat, stepping into the batter's box, and staring down a fastball is something Americans love to do and watch. From the millions of children playing in little leagues to Alex Rodriguez's $252 million contract, baseball is as popular as ever.|
The game is especially popular with Greg Wolpert. Wolpert lives in Manhattan and he used to drive to a batting cage in Westchester County, north of New York City, in order to find a place where he and his kids could take some serious swings.
It was on one of those trips with his son that Wolpert started thinking of all the other parents who were leaving New York City to do the same thing. As his son stood in the batter's box and hacked away, Wolpert came up with the idea of opening his own batting cage in Manhattan.
If you build it, they will come
The demand for sporting facilities certainly outweighs supply in New York City, and that is behind the success of Wolpert's Frozen Ropes Baseball Center. "It's hard to say if we would have opened it if there had been another baseball facility nearby," Wolpert said. "We didn't think much about competition from another sporting center."
Terrie Ward, spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, expects more batting cages to pop up throughout the country. "Amusements are always expanding, and batting cages are an all-inclusive attraction that has become more popular over the years," said Ward. "Baseball is an American pastime, and batting cages appeal to a broad range of individuals."
Despite the mass appeal, Wolpert said "the barriers to entry are pretty great. You need the space, an affordable rent in a pretty affluent area, and the expertise."
Fortunately for Wolpert, he had the rent and space covered. Wolpert is a co-director of Stahl Realty, which owns a bank building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The Italian Renaissance-style landmark building is not the typical home for a sports center, but Frozen Ropes is not the average batting cage.
The basement of the Central Savings Bank building on West 74th Street used to house an employee bowling alley, but was most recently used for storage. "The bank had just been using the basement to store junk and we thought this type of use would be very appealing to kids in the city," Wolpert said. Although his company owns the space, Wolpert said about $750,000-to-$1 million went into renovating the basement before the center opened.
The only part missing from the batting cage was the baseball expertise – someone who not only knew the game, but could teach it to others.
The free-agent signing
Finding a baseball expert is not an easy task in Manhattan, unless your last name is Steinbrenner, so Wolpert went back to the Westchester batting cage and introduced himself to Derek Aucoin.
Aucoin, a former professional player in the Montreal Expos organization, worked for Frozen Ropes baseball centers since 1992. Frozen Ropes is a franchise of baseball centers throughout the United States, and originally Wolpert and Aucoin planned to open the Manhattan center as a Frozen Ropes franchise.
But as plans for the center started to take shape, Wolpert realized he wanted the center to be more than rows of coin-fed pitching machines. He wanted a full-service center where players of all abilities could take pitching, base running, fielding, and hitting lessons. "We were in an agreement with the Frozen Ropes company, but we wanted to run this center ourselves. We wanted the best turf, the best pitching machines – and we wouldn't have been able to do that under the agreement."
Wolpert decided to license the Frozen Ropes name for some brand recognition and hired Aucoin to design and run the facility, which opened July 11, 2000.
Aucoin giving hitting instructions|
Basement of dreams
Walking into Frozen Ropes New York City is similar to walking into a baseball dugout and onto the diamond. There is the walk down the narrow, dark stairs which opens into a hallway lined with lockers, and then there are the fields.
These fields happen to be behind a blue and red door, but they are fields nonetheless. Inside the rooms, there are long lanes surrounded by netting with pitching machines on one end and a home plate on the other. The green astroturf is littered with yellow and white baseballs. There are flat screen televisions showing baseball clips and stereos playing hard rock. Three of the cages have standard pitching machines that can throw at different speeds, and then there are the cages with ProBatter.
According to Aucoin, calling ProBatter a pitching machine "is rudimentary."
ProBatter is the combination of a wall-sized screen that sits on top of a pitching mound and a computer that can hurl a baseball in a variety of eight different pitches. Knuckle, curve, and fork balls can be aimed anywhere in the batters box, at speeds ranging from 40-to-100 miles per hour.
But ProBatter does not come cheap. A single machine costs $95,000, and Frozen Ropes New York purchased two, six months after opening.
Pay to play
Despite keeping a staff of 16 instructors and three desk assistants, which Wolpert admits "does create a little overhead," Frozen Ropes New York City managed to turn a profit in its second month of operation. The $50, half-hour private lessons are a large part of the center's profitability, but Frozen Ropes also attracts customers by providing more than baseball lessons.
Sleep-away camps, birthday parties, and a program called "Mommy and Me" for mothers with children eight-months to two-and-a-half years old, complement the center's instructional programs.
The extensive offerings earned Frozen Ropes a spot in the leisure section of New York magazine's 2001 "best of" issue.
"The instructional part is just as much a part of the operation as the pitching machines," said Aucoin. "It's hitting from the ground up. In fact we have a 60-year-old guy that comes in every December for a couple weeks before he heads out to baseball fantasy camp. We attract all types."
"It's been a really fun," said Wolpert. "Everything from ordering the machines to talking people who were curious about what was going on inside has been great."