This Thursday, the Richmond Flying Squirrels will host their first Pride Night, partnering with Virginia Pride, a community nonprofit serving the LGBTQ community, to bring the event to the ballpark in honor of Pride Month.
The event — featuring the Squirrels versus the Hartford Yard Goats and fireworks — has seen large community support, with Virginia Pride recruiting small businesses, nonprofits and corporations to sponsor the event and purchase ticket packages, a portion of which will go to the organization.
Sales have already been successful; the Squirrels have sold 3,400 tickets in presale as of Friday, an above-average total for a Thursday game a week in advance. Virginia Pride has raised about $10,000 so far, and tickets are still available this week.
The Squirrels are joining nearly 70 other Minor League Baseball teams taking part in MiLB Pride, a recently launched initiative to celebrate Pride Month at games across the country.
But for the Squirrels, conversations about creating a Pride Night have been ongoing for at least two years, said Anthony Oppermann, the Squirrels’ executive director of marketing and promotions.
“The overwhelming sentiment in the office was that we wanted to do it, but we wanted to do it in a very thoughtful way; we didn’t want to just rush into it,” Oppermann said. “So we took the last couple of years to research what other teams have done with their Pride nights and Pride events and really tried to figure out what was a best fit for us [and] for Richmond.”
The event the Richmond Flying Squirrels officials came up with followed a partnership with Virginia Pride, which had previously “tested the waters” by serving as one of many charities in a fundraiser at The Diamond.
After the success of that event, James Millner, Virginia Pride’s president, approached the Squirrels to discuss a potential Pride Night celebration and said he was excited to learn the Squirrels had been doing research of their own. He said the Squirrels deserve “enormous credit” for putting their all into the event, offering the organization and the LGBTQ community a “full embrace” rather than a “one-armed side hug.”
By hosting a Pride Night, Millner said the Squirrels are signaling to Richmond’s LGBTQ community that the organization recognizes them as fans and showing that it supports diversity and inclusion.
There are no openly gay players in Major League Baseball. Events like Pride Night can help change the culture around professional sports and make an impact on young fans and athletes, Millner said. Because sports and athletes have such large influence, embracing the LGBTQ community goes a long way.
“There are definitely kids that go to this game who may not be out,” Millner said. “When they go there, and they’re sitting there with their parents and they’re seeing people waving pride flags in the stands, it tells those people that this community is safer and more welcoming to you than maybe you thought it was.”
Oppermann said that in Richmond, the ballpark is a space for gathering. By incorporating so many sponsors, from the big-name corporations to the local charities, he said the event is larger than baseball and sends a message from the entire community that people should be comfortable in their sexuality and that they deserve to be celebrated.
The Richmond Kickers’ president and general manager, Matt Spear, agreed with that sentiment. The Kickers hosted a Pride Night on June 1 in partnership with Health Brigade, a local clinic that provides health care to traditionally underserved populations, including the LGBTQ community.
As a global sport, Spear said soccer has a unique ability to connect people, and as such, teams have a responsibility to make their in-game experience as inclusive as possible to accommodate such diverse fan bases. Pride Night helped serve that greater cause, he said.
“Part of our thing is to win soccer games and win a championship for Richmond, but a bigger part of it is building community, connecting people across RVA [and] creating experiences where people come together,” Spear said.
The Kickers’ Pride Night had a reported crowd of more than 4,000, the second-largest of the season. The team’s Red Army, the Kickers’ most avid supporters, kicked off a month of support and fundraising for the LGBTQ community by setting off a special rainbow smoke bomb instead of the traditional red one.
Though it’s only one night, the Squirrels’ Oppermann said choosing to host Pride Night this year makes a difference.
“For us, the fact that we hadn’t [had a Pride Night] spoke louder than us actually hosting one,” he said. “It was real important for us moving forward with it to not do a one-armed side embrace but to reach out with both arms and embrace the LGBTQ community.”