There are no guarantees in minor league baseball, and building a winning operation is certainly no easy task. But owners lucky enough to land a new ballpark or move to a market eager for a team typically fare pretty well at the gate.
The Gwinnett Braves (International) had both of those factors working in their favor when they left Richmond, Va., for a new, publicly funded stadium in suburban Atlanta in 2009, but they have proven to be the rare exception to the rule.
Simply put, the turnstiles have not been spinning for the G-Braves. In their debut season, the Braves' Triple-A affiliate averaged just 5,966 fans a game—placing them third from the bottom in the 14-team International League. That number dipped almost 20 percent last season, as Gwinnett drew 4,818 fans a game—the second-worst average in the IL.
Second-year general manager North Johnson is confident that will all change in 2011. With a full offseason to prepare (Johnson came on board just 10 weeks before Opening Day last season) and with trusted lieutenants from his previous posts at Kinston and Myrtle Beach, both in the Carolina League, now on staff in Gwinnett, the veteran minor league operator expects to see a significant boost in attendance this season.
Really, there is no other option at this point.
“If we don’t have a 15 to 20 percent increase (in attendance) this year, then we have to go back to the drawing board,” Johnson said. “We have done a lot of things this offseason that are proven commodities in other markets. Group sales are up. Interest in the community is up. Fundraising numbers are up.
"That should easily result in an increase in attendance.”
What Went Wrong?
Gwinnett seemed to have everything the Braves could want in a new market, including a shiny new ballpark, constructed in just nine months, that was a vast improvement on the crumbling Diamond the franchise left behind after 42 years in Richmond.
The area had a passion for baseball but few pro sports options outside of Atlanta. Being just 30 miles from the parent club created the potential for plenty of cross-promotion possibilities for the G-Braves. And the northern suburbs of Atlanta are one of the fastest-growing regions in the Southeast.
However, each of those qualities also came with pitfalls. The team is still trying to connect with a community unfamiliar with minor league baseball—a fan base that often opts to take the longer drive to see the big league team instead of its Triple-A affiliate nearby. The same proved to be true of corporate sponsors short on money during a recession, as they opted to spend on the big league club down the road.
The area also lacks a population center, the product instead of suburban sprawl. Gwinnett, after all, refers to the name of the county, not a city. The ballpark is in Lawrenceville, one of many similar-sized bedroom communities spread across the county. And with all the growth in Gwinnett has come heavy traffic, meaning people are often still commuting home from work when the team throws out the first pitch. As a result, attendance has been significantly higher on the weekends than during the week.
"It's a community where people get up at 6 in the morning and get home at 7 at night," former general manager Bruce Baldwin said following the 2009 season, when he stepped down after guiding the transition from Richmond to Gwinnett. "We are in a major metro market and we need to learn how to deal with our marketplace."
Still Getting To Know Each Other
That remained the team's goal heading into this past offseason.
Despite having played two seasons in Gwinnett, the team is still getting its footing. In 2009, Baldwin had just 10 days to open the ballpark between the conclusion of construction and Opening Day. Last season, Johnson was hired on Jan. 21, and had little time to get himself settled after three years in Myrtle Beach.
So there is good reason for the team to view 2011 as a new beginning.
"It will be an interesting season there," IL president Randy Mobley said. "They've done well on weekends. The challenge has been to beef things up during the week. North has had success everywhere he has gone. I think we'll see some positive things quite honestly . . . The general education process is still going on in that community in lots of different ways and areas."
Part of the newfound optimism centers around two key hires from Johnson's past. Shari Massengill joins Gwinnett as an assistant general manager after spending 16 years in Kinston, where Johnson served as GM from 1987-2003. The team also hired Maggie Neal to oversee marketing and promotions after she held the same role in Myrtle Beach.
"We've undergone a lot of changes since the end of last season," Johnson said. "We've made significant staff changes and have been able to better utilize our philosophy of how things should work.
"Finally, we've had a full offseason from a sales standpoint, for our group sales and sponsorship departments to really get out in the community to promote the Gwinnett Braves in the manner that has been successful for me in other places. It is still a work in progress, but we have made great strides from where we were before."
Gwinnett has made the effort to become more visible in the community this offseason and reach different segments of its potential fan base. The team held meetings with leaders of the minority communities that make up 50 percent of Gwinnett's population to figure out "what we need to do as an organization to make those segments of the population more comfortable in coming out to the ballpark."
The team has reached out to the local school system and youth sports community, and has seen a significant increase in fundraising partnerships, Johnson said.
Traffic certainly continues to be an issue in the area, but Johnson noted that fans are often late arriving to the ballpark on weekends as well. In an attempt to entice punctuality, Johnson said the team will unveil pregame drink and food specials and entertainment.
"This is the first time this market has had minor league baseball and it's kind of a new experience for them," Johnson said. "Both sides are still learning about each other a little bit."