Spokane, Air Force base arrange unique partnership
It’s an important and common practice for Minor League clubs to contribute to the communities they call home. High-A Spokane decided its philanthropic efforts were better accomplished in partnership with other community leadership. In 2017, the club joined forces with the City of Spokane for the "Redband Rally" campaign, which
It’s an important and common practice for Minor League clubs to contribute to the communities they call home.
High-A Spokane decided its philanthropic efforts were better accomplished in partnership with other community leadership. In 2017, the club joined forces with the City of Spokane for the "Redband Rally" campaign, which was designed to educate and preserve the Spokane River and protect the native Redband Trout.
The newest initiative still kept its community feel. But this time, the club aimed a little higher.
“We're always looking to invent and create and be community partners as all Minor League teams are,” Spokane senior vice president Otto Klein said.
In May, the club launched Operation Fly Together, which, in its very broad strokes, is a fundraising, educational and community outreach initiative that works in conjunction with the local Fairchild Air Force Base.
“I'm amazed by the Spokane Indians and the partnership and everything they do for the military,” said Col. Cassius T. Bentley III, the Commander of the 92d Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild, who has worked in the community with Klein since well before the program’s inception.
This season, the club planned to celebrate eight different “Fairchild Fridays” at Avista Stadium. The events were complete with military flyovers, jerseys modeled after the U.S. Air Force service dress uniforms and hats featuring the KC-135 tanker. At 63, Fairchild hosts the largest number of KC-135s of any base in the country. A formal Military Appreciation night during their final weekend of games was unfortunately canceled due to COVID issues with the club.
The hats and jerseys were auctioned off after the season as part of the fundraising efforts of the overall program, but Bentley credits the work done by the team with helping recruitment and creating a positive image for the Air Force and the base’s operation, which also include the guard and survival school.
“The level of detail they went through with the uniforms -- they have plans in the future to have a mascot and several other things,” Bentley said. “But not only that, the money, the profit they make from these uniform sales and the hats with the tanker on it, they use that money to support local veterans. It's a huge payback. It's awe-inspiring. I can't believe the level of effort they put into this.”
Using the Redband Rally campaign as a blueprint, Klein and the club’s front office looked into ways to bring this alternate branding to one of Spokane’s stalwart institutions in Fairchild.
Klein’s first conversation was with Jeff Johnson, a season ticket holder and executive director of the installation support and mission sustainment team at Fairchild, who answers to Bentley. Klein had been part of the base’s community efforts along with other business leaders for more than a decade, so he brought the idea to Johnson during a game in 2019.
“I kind of put these prompts out there of these benchmarks -- what if the baseball team led the community and celebrated Fairchild and veterans in our community like no one has ever done before, and let's set some lofty goals,” Klein said.
The club and the base quickly got on the same page to co-sponsor events and help each other raise money for these different initiatives to distribute through the Innovia Foundation, a third-party group administering the funds raised by small and large-scale donors through different programs and grants. Klein said there had been a number of grants given out since Operation Fly Together started in May, and there will be a community committee tasked with directing these funds sometime in the future.
They don't yet have any specific projects in place for the future, but Klein’s goal for the community committee is to figure out veterans’ needs and how they can best provide support.
But where Operation Fly Together really gained its traction was the marketing agreement between the club and the base, a first of its kind in professional sports.
While just about every other sports team celebrates the armed forces with something like a military appreciation event, this partnership is the first with a written document for a branch of the United States military that allows both entities to use each other’s branding for marketing purposes.
“I think that's going to be a distinguishing factor that we were able to like be at the forefront of breaking new ground and breaking that barrier,” Klein said. “To be able to go beyond the walls of Fairchild and break that barrier between the community and the base.”
Bringing this initiative to a larger scale enables the club to go beyond Spokane and Fairchild for its efforts. Klein has his sights set on Operation Fly Together becoming a national program that reaches Minor League clubs and military bases across the country.
“I hope this serves as a template for all the other bases that have Minor League teams in the community in the future,” Klein said.
When asked about what it takes for a base and the club to build the initiative, Bentley said it was pretty simple. All it took was two willing participants recognizing the win-win for both parties.
“It's nothing hard to do. The team here already set the standard for how to do it. We went through all the legal review and all that, so the template is out there,” Bentley said. “I just think the benefits are great, and they just helped spread the word about the base and the relationship. ... They're getting money and giving it to the people that need it. And they're focusing on veteran groups.”
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.