Brian Colopy is the first one to tell you that he loves baseball but that it isn’t that much fun to watch.
Which is why, since the 39-year-old began working in the Northwoods League, the summer collegiate league that both the Kalamazoo Growlers and the Battle Creek Battle Jacks (formerly the BC Bombers) baseball teams belong to, he has set out to change that.
He started by introducing the Twinkie Hot Dog at Battle Creek games and then the Bear Claw Burger — a 4,000-calorie cheeseburger with mac ’n’ cheese and pulled pork crammed between two doughnuts — at Growlers games, which generated a lot of buzz from both local and national media.
Then it was the Selfie Jersey and a drum line in the stands, then the Growlettes granny cheerleading team, the Dad Bods dancing team and the Homerun Derbies, followed by five-inning games. And audiences responded.
“It’s everything but baseball. I think we coined ourselves the ‘un-baseball team,'” says Colopy. “Everything we do is based around fun. That’s how our mission and motto — ‘Where fun makes a difference’ — was born.”
He is so good at fun that he created a company, Outlier Events, to run food-oriented festivals such as the Donut and Beer Fest, the Mac and Cheese Fest, and the Tacos and Tequila Fest, which all debuted in Kalamazoo but are now held in other locations, including Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ohio and Wisconsin.
“We want to be an event company that creates events that make people happy and that people haven’t tried or are scared to try,” he says. “And luckily so far, we’ve sold every ticket to every event we’ve ever had.”
How did you get where you are today?
I was in the sports administration program at Ohio University and the program assigned me a mentor. All my roommates got these great mentors, big names like athletic directors at big colleges, and I got this guy named Dick Radatz. I felt like I had been stiffed because getting a mentor is a big deal, right? They’re there to give you advice and help you get jobs.
When I first met him, it was over the phone — he’s in Florida, I was in Ohio — and he stopped me mid-conversation and said, “I’m not gonna do this on the phone. I’m gonna do it the right way. I’m flying you down to Florida tomorrow. We’re gonna do this in person.”
Dick is the president of the Northwoods League. He and his wife, Kathy, started this league nearly 30 years ago. He came up with the idea of running the first for-profit summer collegiate baseball league ever, and people said it was a dumb idea that would never work. I started as an unpaid intern for the Northwoods League and built a relationship with Dick over time, and we stayed in touch.
After school I was working for Ripkin Baseball’s minor league teams in Baltimore and Aberdeen (South Dakota) and Augusta, Georgia. I had a few job offers, and I called Dick and said, “Hey, I’m not looking for a job, but you know, what do you think of these?”
He said, “You’re not taking any of those jobs. You’re gonna come up to Battle Creek, Michigan, and work for my team.” I trusted Dick and took a leap of faith. That was in 2010. And in 2014, we started the Kalamazoo Growlers team.
Earlier this year you became the owner of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo teams.
Dick and Kathy Radatz’s business is running the league, making sure they have a strong league by finding owners and people to run the league’s teams. When Kalamazoo came about, Dick and Kathy told me, “This is your opportunity to own two teams.” But having no money at the time (Colopy laughs), I had to bet on myself. I knew that if I could run the teams and make them successful, then I could become the youngest owner in Northwoods League history. That’s basically what I’ve been obsessed with doing for the past seven or eight years.
What is your fascination with food-oriented festivals?
Kalamazoo was known for being a festival town. I had gone to some of those festivals and had a great time. But a year or two down the line, the festival would shut down. And then another one would shut down. I was like, “This is crazy. These used to be a really big part of Kalamazoo and its history. Why are they failing?” I realized it was like baseball. If you do what everyone else is doing, you’re gonna get what everyone else is getting. It’s not different or new.
And everyone was doing a beer festival. But I love doughnuts — thus the Bear Claw Burger — and I thought they sounded good together and became obsessed with this doughnut and beer thing. I remember distinctly being laughed out of my very first meeting on this and being told it just wasn’t going to work. I left so mad that I was like, “I’m gonna make this freaking festival work.” We sold out of the event with close to 3,000 people. And we said, “Let’s do what we’re doing with baseball but with festivals. My wife’s and my 3-year-old daughter’s favorite food is macaroni and cheese. People love mac and cheese. Let’s do that.” Then it was tacos and tequila because who doesn’t like tacos? And we’ve got more coming on board.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity