Some Niagara University students aren’t just getting their feet wet in the real world, they’re living in it.
From planning a promotional schedule to finalizing ticket prices, 23 student interns are the reason the Niagara Power will be back on in June after a two-year hiatus.
Niagara University announced in October that its College of Hospitality and Tourism Management purchased the Niagara Power and that the school's sports management department would operate the team. The purchase makes NU the first university in the country to own and operate a collegiate baseball team.
Since the fall, students have been busy preparing for the team’s home opener on June 2 at Sal Maglie Stadium in Niagara Falls.
“It’s going to be really cool for us to see a team that was there before, and see that our work is responsible for bringing the team back. That’s going to be special,” said Kyle Barker, a junior and head intern of the team. “We know that we’re accentuating a new chapter of baseball in Niagara Falls. We know it has a history in the past. We’re excited that we can continue that trend of baseball in the area.”
Cal Kern, who previously owned the team, will still have a role with the franchise, including marketing the team and continuing to serve as the team’s chaplain. But for the most part, it’s a student-run show.
“Outside of managing the team on the field, the students are The Power. We’re going to be there to oversee it, but they’re responsible for the day-to-day operations,” said Dr. Patrick Tutka, The Power’s president and director of operations. Dr. Tutka is an assistant professor of sports management at NU.
Since the fall, NU students have been learning everything there is to know about managing The Power. A communication class is learning how to write press releases and web stories. A sales class focuses on selling ads for the team program. A marketing class is finalizing a promotions schedule.
Even the concessions stand will be run by students, which will be overseen by Dr. Joel Reynolds, an assistant professor in Niagara’s hospital program and a certified executive chef.
Students finalized a full menu that includes traditional baseball options peanuts, popcorn, Sahlen’s hot dogs and much more. You’ll also find certain game day specials at the ballpark, like perhaps poutine and smothered sausage and peppers.
“I sit there and drool at being in their shoes,” said Dr. Tutka, who will team up with fellow sports management professor Dr. Cheryl Rode on the project. “I look at the opportunity in front of them and I’m jealous. I worked in the industry for about a decade and this is my first opportunity to build something up like this. They’ve been able to do this as college students.”
While Dr. Tutka has experience working with a sports team – having worked with Acadiana Cane Cutters of the Texas Collegiate League for two seasons – for most his of students, this is their first shot at working with a sports team.
“While it is just collegiate summer league ball, the concepts are still the same,” Tutka said. “It’s going to be a wonderful learning laboratory. I’d love to say that everything is going to be perfect, but it won’t. That’s part of the fun of it. It’s learning and figuring out how we get better each game.”
Barker, a Syracuse native and president of NU’s Sport Management Association, also has some experience in the industry, having worked with the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch since he was a junior in high school.
Because of his background, he was hand-picked to lead The Power’s student interns, which range from freshmen to graduate students.
“I’ll be helping Dr. Tutka on the operations side,” Barker said. “Basically the planning, the behind the scenes stuff. Figuring out who’s going to be where at what time, making sure everything is running smoothly.”
Barker will also produce videos for the team, like the one below that was shared across The Power’s social media accounts.
The video is just one of many things The Power has been planning that is going to raise the bar.
Kern, who owned the team for nine seasons with his wife Sherrie, previously had his hand in just about everything.
“It was kind of overwhelming, but rewarding,” Kern said. “It was a mom and pop operation between my wife and I. We poured nine seasons into and a lot of good things came from it, but it was hard. It was challenging.”
The partnership with NU will put the Niagara Power on a whole other level, compared to other league opponents like the Olean Oilers and Wellsville Nitros.
“The New York Collegiate League is one of the top-ranked leagues in the country, but when it comes to what the students are going to bring as far as a game day experience, other teams don’t even come close,” said Kern, who says he will do mostly community relations for the team.
One of the many new things coming to Sal Maglie Stadium is a mascot. After “Bolt” edged out “Lightning Larry” in a poll pushed out on social media in March. A helicopter flown by Rainbow Air is actually going to escort “Bolt” to the field on Opening Day.
That’s just one of many plans the students have come up with.
With this summer marking the 10th season of the Niagara Power, an Alumni Game is planned for June 30. The Power will also wear special throwback uniforms that day to celebrate the anniversary.
On Opening Day, the team will dedicate its press box to the late Doug Smith, who was the team’s public address announcer for all nine seasons and a former Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun & Journal columnist.
Other promotions include Military Appreciation Day, Dog Day at the Ballpark and a Canned Food Drive. The team’s full promotional schedule will be released soon.
“Every game is going to have lots of entertainment and fan involvement,” Kern said. “It’s going to be like watching a professional minor league game.”
While the students take the entertainment to the next level, Kern has a hand in the on-field product. Kern got the ball rolling on recruiting and hired Caleb Lang to be the team’s head coach.
Lang is a former two-year starter (2014-2015) and NYCBL player of the year with the Niagara Power. Rohn Pierce, another Niagara Power alum who played at Newfane and Canisius College before being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2014, will be Lang’s assistant.
Players will be coming from all over, including colleges in Ohio, New Hampshire and Virginia. Josh Surowiec, a former All-WNYer from Williamsville North who now plays at Mercyhurst, is one player with local ties.
The students will get a dress rehearsal of sorts when The Power hosts the Ontario Blue Jays on May 30 in an exhibition matchup. The Power will open their season on Rochester on June 1 and will host Genesee at Sal Maglie Stadium on June 2 for its home opener.
“The way I see it, you’re going to have projects and homework assignments in college anyways,” Barker said. “The difference is we’re kind of switching it from practical scenarios to real life scenarios and I can’t wait for the season to get here.”