Even amid yet another slump on the field, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs are making a run at first place—in attendance, that is.
The third-year Triple-A International League affiliate tops all of minor league baseball with an average of 9,206 fans per game, and 543,171 total, in 59 openings. With 12 home dates (and several noteworthy promotions remaining on the creative team’s schedule), the IronPigs are on pace to top their total from last season (641,335) while making a run at Triple-A Columbus’ minor league high from 2009 (666,797).
“I think being No. 1 overall is fantastic and I have started to realize that we have a phenomenal shot at doing that, but we’ve just focused on increasing our attendance each year,” Lehigh Valley general manager Kurt Landes said.
The IronPigs have done just that in their brief existence. Playing in a 3-year-old ballpark with plenty of frills certainly helps bring fans out. But the IronPigs have steadily grown their fan base and packed Coca-Cola Park while playing in the 27th largest market among the 30 Triple-A teams.
They have also received little help on the field.
The Phillies have had plenty of success at the big league level since the IronPigs debuted in 2008, but their Triple-A affiliate has found a regular home near the bottom of the International League standings.
This season, Lehigh Valley’s 46-72 mark is better than only Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the IL. The team finished 71-73 in 2009 (good for third in the IL’s Northern Division) after going a brutal 55-89 in 2008, the IL’s worst mark. In fact, Landes said, the IronPigs have never had a winning record in three seasons—not even 1-0.
The losing has hardly discouraged IronPigs fans. On Tuesday, for example, Lehigh Valley sold out Coca-Cola Park by drawing 10,000 fans despite the team having lost 14 of 15 games. On Thursday, Lehigh Valley snapped an 11-game home losing streak in front of 9,502 fans. The team averaged 9,582 fans over those 12 games.
“If our team was competitive in August, it would be such an incredible environment, to be involved in a playoff chase,” Landes said. “We could do some truly amazing things if we had a competitive team . . . It makes it that much more important for us that we do our jobs perfectly. Entertain. Promotions. Giveaways. We have to be on top our games to do things perfectly.”
The Pigs have made the most of a ballpark that has proven to be one of the nicest in the minors. They sold out their eight group-seating areas for the entire season—which include five suites, two party porches and a picnic area, and accounts for roughly 800 fans per game. One of their offseason goals is to add more group-seating options to the ballpark as well as convert some standing-room only areas into fixed seats.
The highlight of Lehigh Valley’s season came last month when they hosted the Triple-A all-star game—which they did in typical IronPigs fashion. A team known for its creativity did not disappoint—they allowed select fans to watch the home run derby from inside a batting cage on the infield dirt and placed an employee in a crane that was raised a foot with every home run. The event also gave the team a chance to show off its home to their peers.
“The greatest compliment was paid by other team executives and how amazed they were at the facility and at the promotions we do,” Landes said. “We were thrilled to share the IronPigs experience.”
Meanwhile, Triple-A Sacramento will finish out of the top spot for a second consecutive season. The River Cats, which topped the minors in attendance for eight straight seasons after debuting in 2000, ranks second this season but is on pace for another drop.
The recession has hit Sacramento hard, and it has shown at the gate. The team is averaging 8,870 fans per game—an impressive total, but one that is down from 9,126 last season and 9,725 in 2008.
The Columbus Clippers are third overall while experiencing a slight dip after debuting their new ballpark in grand fashion last year. The minors' top draw in 2009, Columbus' average has fallen from 9,526 last season to 8,736 this year through 57 openings.
|Lehigh Valley (AAA)||543,171||9,206||59|
|Round Rock (AAA)||523,596||8,311||63|