Lookouts owner wants to 'kick up' AT&T Field experience for fans

AT&T Field has served as the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts since the start of the 2000 season, making it the third-oldest ballpark in the Southern League. Team owner Jason Freier, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Hardball Capital, made upgrades to the stadium in 2015 and is considering other potential changes.

Next spring, the Chattanooga Lookouts will embark on their 17th season at AT&T Field.

New Lookouts owner Jason Freier believes it will be the best year yet.

"AT&T Field is certainly a viable ballpark," Freier said this week by phone. "I think we did a few things before this past season to make it better. We updated the suites that hadn't been touched in 15 years, and now everything in them is new. They're much more conducive to business entertainment now. I would not have taken a client there before, because the carpets and the paint job and the furniture were all old and musty.

"We fixed that, and we built the deck out in left field that took an area of the ballpark that was not an attractive area to spend time and made it into a place that's great as far as enjoying the game. We're looking for more ways to make AT&T Field an exciting and fun place."

The only Southern League teams with facilities older than AT&T Field, which was privately funded and opened before the 2000 season, are the Mobile BayBears (1997) and the Jackson Generals (1998).

Freier's purchase of Chattanooga's storied Class AA franchise became official 42 days before the start of this past season, which ended in mid September with the Lookouts winning their first championship since 1988. John Woods, who grew up in Chattanooga, is a co-owner who spearheaded the deal that gave Freier control of operations.

Freier estimates attending 20 Lookouts games this year, including several in the playoffs, so he is much more comfortable commenting on AT&T Field now. The chairman and CEO of Hardball Capital in Atlanta loves the park being in the heart of downtown, but he believes the 6,340-seat facility has drawbacks.

photo Jason Freier, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Hardball Capital, the main business of which is the operation of minor league baseball teams.

"The biggest issue with AT&T Field is the orientation of the ballpark," Freier said. "It's very convenient for a lot of people, but we wish that the ballpark had been oriented differently from the start. Up on that hill, you have one of the best views of downtown and the river that you have any place in the city.

"Due to the way the ballpark was oriented, we unfortunately only have those views from certain spots. From the main seating bowl, you don't see the river or the downtown skyline. You have issues with the sun getting in the faces of the fans and some of the players on the field as well."

Though the 2015 season is barely a month over, Freier already is compiling a lengthy list involving architects and engineers to make AT&T Field more aesthetically pleasing and more functional. Freier said AT&T encourages spectators to go to their assigned seats or group areas; he believes fans should be able to walk around and see things from multiple angles, an asset newer parks feature.

Hardball Capital built Parkview Field in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 2009, and it has started construction on a new park in Columbia, S.C. Freier insists he is not rushing things in terms of pursuing a new location in Chattanooga for the Lookouts.

"We're more focused on the immediacy of showing the fan base that we can make AT&T Field a great place for everyone now," he said. "I think it has consistently been a good place, but I think we can really kick that up a level. Once we've improved the experience and get to know the community a little better, we'll start to figure that stuff out in terms of real long-term options. Building new stadiums has not been entirely driven by us in any of the markets that we've been in before. In Fort Wayne, the city had a piece of land that they had tried for a decade to get some development on. In Columbia, they had 181 acres of land they had been trying to develop for 18 years.

"It never works if it's only being driven by one side or another, so for us, it's a matter of if there is an opportunity in a community, and, if so, where is a location that would make sense for both parties? The first ballpark we build that isn't a win for both sides is probably the last ballpark we build."

Freier considers his first season as Lookouts owner a success from an operational standpoint, despite some trouble with inclement weather. The Lookouts had six home dates rained out, which was a record for AT&T Field, according to team president and general manager Rich Mozingo.

Providing celebratory champagne was part of the inaugural tab for Freier, as is the purchasing of Southern League championship rings for the players.

"Seems pretty easy, right?" Freier said with a laugh. "Show up in March and win a championship in September."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.