Tuesday, April 11, 2006 | 7:23 a.m.
Ah, football, music and Jesus.
On Palm Sunday the mixture of those three ingredients brought Salt Lake City residents Roger and Sonje Beal and their four young daughters to the first-ever "faith night" promotion at an arena football game.
Much like cap night at the ballpark, faith nights at sporting events draw families by offering a combination of free giveaways and Christian entertainment. The Beals, here for spring break, went to the Thomas & Mack Center to see the Las Vegas Gladiators play the Nashville Kats.
Roger Beal got to enjoy the game while his daughters, ages 2 through 7, got to meet Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato, stars of the Christian animated series "Veggie Tales."
The Beal family topped off the afternoon at a live concert by Christian musician Matthew West in the plaza outside the arena.
The event was marketed in advance to about 80 churches through Bethany College, the Las Vegas based-SOS Radio Network and the Nevada division of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said Brent High, president of Third Coast Sports.
The company is the sports marketing division of Third Coast Artists, a booking agency that promotes several big-name Christian artists.
The goal behind faith nights across the country is threefold: to promote sports to a new audience, to provide church groups with events they can attend with other Christians and to give Third Coast entertainment artists new performance venues.
"It's hard to find a losing aspect of this," High said. "The team wins, the community church wins, the artist wins."
Since Third Coast went national in 2005, it has seen faith night game attendance to all sports soar 22 percent over season averages, High said.
Gladiators ticketing director Michael Carosielli estimates that Third Coast brought in more than 2,000 people to the game on a Sunday afternoon when attendance is typically poor. More than 9,700 people came, a record for a Sunday game and the second-highest attendance of the season.
"It's definitely one of the highest theme nights we've ever had," Carosielli said.
Third Coast had sold 1,200 group tickets to the Gladiators game through at least 40 churches. The Gladiators donated those tickets, at $10 a pop, to Third Coast as payment for putting on the event, but it kept the money from all other ticket sales and from concession and merchandise proceeds. Third Coast also brought in other Christian sponsors to help cover costs, but the events are also seen as promotions for the Third Coast artists.
Ultimately, however, organizers see the events as a way to spread their faith.
Football is one of the "gods of this world," said Dean McQuillan, Nevada state director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "What we are doing is using one of the worldly gods ... to introduce the fans of that sport to the real God."
High started the faith night concept in 2002, when he was vice president for sales of the Nashville Sounds, a minor league baseball team. As a former youth pastor, High was charged with selling group seats directly to churches.
By 2004, faith nights included giveaways of New Testaments and biblical bobblehead dolls. In 2005 High took his idea on the road, branching out from minor league baseball into hockey, soccer and now arena football.
Third Coast will host its first Major League Baseball faith night this year at a game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Atlanta Braves.
The Birmingham Steeldogs, an Arena Football League team, has volunteered to take faith night a step further by wearing Bible-themed jerseys at an event May 5.
For that night only, the Steeldogs will become the Samson Dogs after the biblical figure, and while their numbers will stay the same, their names will be changed to books of the Bible, High said.
No. 1, for instance, would become Genesis 1, pointing a fan to the first book of the Bible. No. 51 will become Psalms 51.
The faith elements during faith nights are pretty low key, so that people who prefer to keep their football religion-free can do so, High said. The most explicit Christian aspects always take place after the game.
Most people attending the Gladiators game Sunday seemed unaware of the promotion. One Gladiator jersey-wearing season-ticket holder said the only hint she saw was a video promoting World Vision International, a Christian relief organization.
"I guess I don't see the point," the woman said. "I'm just not used to seeing religion run into sports."
But another season-ticket holder sitting nearby called it "a unique idea."
"I think whatever they can do to market this team as part of the community is a good thing," said Mark Jacobson, a volunteer on the team's community advisory board.
Christians at the game loved the concept because it gave them an opportunity to invite friends who would never step into a church.
"It's perfect," said Randall Cunningham, former star quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and UNLV and now the lead pastor for Remnant Ministries. "Jesus taught his disciples to 'go where the people are.' "
Canyon Ridge Christian Church member Zachary Hixon, 33, said he came for the game, but that the Christian concert was like "icing on the cake." He loved that the Gladiators had targeted Christians to get them interested in the sport.
"I think there is a stereotype of Christians as people who only study the Bible," Hixon said. "We do that, but we can get dirty and enjoy sports as well."