LAS VEGAS — Although Tucson is unfortunately going on six years now since its last Triple-A experience with the Padres at Kino Stadium, a person who called Tucson home and travels to the city occasionally to visit his girlfriend’s family is still thriving at that level of baseball.
His name is James Jensen, the director of sponsorship for the Las Vegas Aviators, who are a huge success story in their first year at the state-of-the-art Las Vegas Ballpark at the suburb of Summerlin.
“This is kind of a major league stadium as far as Triple-A operations go,” Jensen said as he looked out from the enclosed, air-conditioned club area at the 10,000-seat stadium with the largest digital video board in minor-league baseball, a 31 feet high by 126 feet wide display with a 13 HD pixel layout.
“A lot of eyes kind of point to what Vegas is doing.”
Las Vegas Ballpark includes 22 suites, 400 club-level seats and 350 party deck seats, a center field pool, kids’ zone, grass seating area and several bars. The ballpark is the first in sports history with all seats (8,200 of them) made from breathable mesh. And, of course, there’s Finn the Bat Dog retrieving bats and taking them back to the dugout after a batter tosses them aside.
This past weekend, the Aviators, the top farm club of the Oakland Athletics, broke the previous Las Vegas single-season home attendance record of 387,815 in 72 dates that stood since 1992. In only 42 home games entering Monday’s game, a total of 398,771 fans passed through the turnstiles. At that point, 27 games remained on the home schedule.
The Aviators rank at the top of both total attendance and average attendance (9,495 per game) in all of minor-league baseball. That average is slightly more than Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins, who average 9,402 fans a game through 42 games at Marlins Park.
“We’re sold out an a season-ticket basis (of about 4,000 seats), and people are staying at the games longer (than previous park, Cashman Stadium, near downtown Las Vegas),” Jensen said. “People live around here so they stay a little later. We’re winning (42-32 record) and that helps, too.”
Jensen, 36, called Tucson home for almost 12 years after moving from Spokane, Wash., in 2001 to attend the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Business. After earning his degree in 2005, Jensen’s professional experience in baseball began as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ coordinator of spring training operations.
He was the director of hospitality of sales with the independent Tucson Toros from 2008 to 2010 and then the director of sales with the Tucson Padres from 2010 until the franchise moved to El Paso in 2013.
Jensen was also an Arizona Interscholastic Association basketball and volleyball official for five years, starting while in college in 2008 until he was forced to find a new home five years later when the Padres ceased operations at Kino Stadium.
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“Fortunately, they had an opening here in Vegas (with the then Las Vegas 51’s) and it’s better for me that I came here instead of going to El Paso because of what’s happening now,” Jensen said. “They’ve been doing great in El Paso with four straight division championships, but we’re trying to get there.”
Jensen’s background in baseball front-office operations, starting with the Diamondbacks, has helped mold him into one of the most successful at his position in the nation. He has sold more than $1 million in corporate partnership packages for the Las Vegas Ballpark.
He cites some big hitters for helping his development including Bonnie Faircloth (the Tucson Police Foundation executive director who is formerly the manager of the Diamondbacks’ operations in Tucson), Jay Zucker (former Tucson Sidewinders and independent Tucson Toros owner), Sean Smock (a Tucsonan who was the general manager of the Toros under Zucker and is now the special events coordinator for the Triple-A Reno Aces) and longtime Tucson sports management figure Mike Feder (who was GM of the Tucson Padres when Jensen worked with the club).
Aviators president and chief operating officer Don Logan, who is in his 30th year with Las Vegas’ minor-league franchise, came to know Jensen’s value in marketing when Jensen was with Feder.
“It’s a tight-knit baseball group, so that definitely helped me get over here (in 2014). Hopefully they like what I’ve been able to bring to the table here,” Jensen said with a proud smile.
“I love sports, grew up playing a bunch of sports. I wanted to do sports marketing before sports marketing was a thing. I majored in marketing at Eller with a minor in communication because I knew I wanted to interact and talk to people and be a part of marketing and sales. My dad did radio sales forever up in Spokane, so I knew I wanted to be in sales and it’s been great.”
Jensen jokingly said he became an AIA referee in Tucson for “beer money while in college.” He continued to work as a high school official in Las Vegas but has recently been relegated to being an official scorekeeper as well as a referee analyst because of knee problems.
He keeps an eye on his alma mater and proudly displays his love for the Wildcats with his office decked out in Arizona decorations. His cell phone case has an Arizona “A” on it. He faithfully attends the Pac-12 basketball tournament annually at T-Mobile to watch Sean Miller‘s team.
“Everybody in the office knows when the Wildcats are playing,” Jensen said with a laugh. “I put a polo on. I have to show the pride. I probably have the most school spirit of anybody in the office and that opens me up for some heat some times.”
Jensen also continues to follow the sports landscape of Tucson and was impressed by the fan involvement the expansion Tucson Sugar Skulls of the Indoor Football League received this season, averaging more than 4,000 fans a game at the Tucson Arena.
He has keen insight on whether minor-league baseball can return to Tucson soon. He mentioned it is a “tough” situation because of a long season throughout the summer operating in Tucson, which is known mostly as a “college sports town.”
“But never say never,” he added. “I know that the Sugar Skulls just finished their season with great ambitions and crowds over there at the TCC, so I know there is a market for sports in Tucson.
“It’s a you-just-got-to-give-it-a-shot kind of thing, you know?”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.