Hartselle grad part of Vipers winning team
Lindsay Vaught, Special to the Enquirer
HUNTSVILLE – It's been over an hour since fans have filed out of the VBC Arena after watching the Vipers dismantle another af2 team to complete an 8-0 home record. But for Hartselle native Ashley Balch the workday is not over. For Balch, the Vipers Vice-President of Communications and a 1993 graduate of Hartselle High, these are exciting times.
Balch is now in his fourth season in the front office and has been through all the ups and downs of the franchise. This season the Vipers are on a mission to win the Arena Cup Championship, which narrowly eluded them the first season. Division Championships followed the next two seasons but so did playoff losses. With a record of 14-1 the Vipers have already secured home field through the first two playoff games and could host the Arena Cup with a win in their final game at Macon Saturday.
The Vipers success on the field has been matched off the field as well. Embraced by the fans, the team averaged 5,550 in attendance this year, 84 percent of capacity including one sellout. While having a popular product helps, it is no accident that the Vipers have flourished.
As evidence, just look 300 miles south. The Mobile Wizards folded this season after only one year in af2.
The job of dealing with the media falls on Balch and with sports entrepreneur Art Clarkson as the Vipers Owner/President, he can learn from the master. Clarkson has done it all in sports management in his 30 years in the business, from pro football in the WFL to Southern League Baseball. "He's the best Public Relations Director in the league," said Clarkson. "I know how fortunate we are to have him, actually he's overqualified for the job. He's had chances to move up, even to the league office in Chicago, but he loves it here. This is home for him. With the planned arena in Decatur, I see him growing with us and a lot of opportunity in the future."
Balch was a two-year starter for coach Don Woods during his playing days as a scrappy receiver for Hartselle where he developed a love of sports that never left him.
"I knew I wanted to do something in sports, but not coaching," Balch said. He worked in the Sports Information Department at UNA during his four years there while getting degrees in journalism and public relations. At age 23, he became the Sports Information Director at Alabama A&M, a Division 2 university moving to Division 1A. It should have been a perfect fit, but the responsibility for 18 men and women sports was overwhelming. After two years at A&M, he left to join the Vipers front office.
His job requires writing the game story for media distribution, game notes, media releases, as well as handling all correspondence with the af2 league office.
The off-season involves sales and marketing and preparation of the media guide.
"The main difference working in pro sports is I can concentrate on just football. In college I had 18 sports that required my attention. There's more pressure in pro sports. In college I wasn't really concerned about attendance. But here attendance is like a measure of how successful we are in the front office, just like touchdown passes are to Matt Sauk. If we're not putting people in the seats, then we could be gone just like a player that's not producing," Balch said from his office in the Von Braun Center.
Later in the week, after preparing daily press releases, he boarded the team bus heading to Moline, Ill. for an important game with the Quad City Steamwheelers.
The pull of his hometown is still strong. His mother Elaine still works at Hartselle High. "The community is so supportive of all the sports," Balch, who played on Hartselle's top-ranked basketball team as a senior, said. "They don't let anyone intimidate them. It was that way when I played and it's still that way today."
Balch, wife Amy and son Bryce live in nearby Priceville.
While covering high school sports part time in college, he had offers from local papers for jobs, but Balch passed on them. "I wanted to be more involved in the organization than just covering the teams. Like when the team wins we win. I've got three national championship rings from UNA, but I want another from the Vipers," he said.
Chances are good he will get it too. Their first playoff game will be Aug. 8.