After the first three months of the season, minor league baseball seemed likely to shatter last season's attendance mark and post its first increase at the gate in four years. As the final games of 2012 are played, however, it doesn't look like that will come to pass.
According to unofficial attendance figures, minor league teams have drawn 41,164,708 fans this season, which would be 87,345 shy of last season's figure of 41,252,053. The New York-Penn League concludes its regular season today, and the Pioneer League wraps up on Saturday, but those leagues probably don't have the attendance horsepower to make up the difference. If teams match their season averages, those two leagues would combine for an additional 60,464 fans, which would leave the sport just 26,881 below last season's total.
(Minor League Baseball will likely release official totals early next week after all leagues have completed play.)
Minor league baseball set attendance records for five straight seasons from 2004-08 before the recession slowed its growth. If this season's pace continues, it would mark the second straight year that minor league attendance held relatively steady. Last year's figure was just 0.4 percent off 2010, prompting Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner to says "flat is the new up" during such challenging financial times. The same appears true this year, though a bigger finish appeared possible early this season.
An improving economy combined with picture-perfect weather this spring had minor league baseball on pace to easily top last year's number. Attendance was up 11.2 percent in April, and the 6,401,632 fans that visited minor league ballparks that month was the second-highest total since 2000. The minors remained 6.3 percent ahead of pace after May and up 901,800 through June. That number dipped to 500,000 after July, as the hottest month on record cooled baseball's early season pace.
"We had such a good April weather-wise compared to a year ago, that we came out of the gate almost 11 or 12 percent higher. We have gradually given up some of that increase and played back to being flat." O'Conner said in late August. "But this has been a good year regardless of the attendance numbers. Clubs are reporting good (sales) activity in the ballpark. It's a new environment . . . Our goal is to increase activity in the ballpark and not give up ground on attendance."
Attendance got a boost from a new market replacing a perennially poor-drawing one, and a particularly strong year in the Mexican League, which Minor League Baseball includes in its overall figures. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos debuted this season and led the Southern League in attendance with 328,147 fans, for a 4,826 average. Pensacola, which was boosted by Reds speedster Billy Hamilton's chase of the minor league stolen-base record, was the only team in the league to top the 300,000 mark.
Pensacola also proved to be a marked improvement over the Kinston Indians, the franchise it essentially replaced this season. Pensacola purchased the Carolina Mudcats franchise in the Southern League, and the Mudcats bought the Kinston franchise in the Carolina League. The Blue Wahoos drew 215,966 more fans than Kinston did it in 2011, and Pensacola's average attendance was a 170 percent increase over the Indians' 1,781 average.
Meanwhile, the Mexican League drew 3,738,923 fans in 2012, roughly 300,000 more than it did during a challenging 2011 campaign that saw two teams fold.
The Lehigh Valley IronPigs (International) led the minors in attendance for a third consecutive season, averaging 9,153 fans over 68 openings, a 1 percent dip from its 9,249 average last season but still good enough to outpace fellow IL franchise Columbus. Lehigh Valley drew 622,421 fans overall and joined the Clippers as the only two teams to top the 600,000 mark. The Clippers, in their fourth season at Huntington Park, averaged 8,732 fans, a marginal increase from its 8,704 average last season.
Dayton (Midwest), which has sold out every game at Fifth Third Field since debuting in 2000, finished third with an 8,532 average—a 2.94 increase over its 8,288 average last season. Indianapolis (International) finished fourth with an 8,501 average, and saw a 4 percent increase from its 8,170 average last season. Round Rock (Pacific Coast) rounded out the top five with an 8,389 average, down 2.3 percent from 8,587 last season.
Sacramento, which topped the minors in attendance for nine straight seasons from 2000-08, finished sixth overall this season with an 8,140 average. It marked a 3.7 percent decrease from its 8,455 average in 2011 and an even more significant 16.3 percent decline from its 9,725 average in 2008.
Just seven Triple-A teams saw an increase at the gate in 2012. The biggest gainers included Salt Lake (Pacific Coast), which spiked 11.3 percent to 7,162 following a weather-plagued 2011 campaign; Oklahoma City (Pacific Coast), which was up 7.1 percent to 5,633 in its first season under Mandalay Baseball ownership; and Durham (International), which drew 6,811 for 4.5 percent increase from a rainy 2011.
Notable dips in the PCL included Tucson, which was down 13.3 percent during its second season as a temporary base for the Padres; Reno, down 11.1 percent after holding steady since its 2009 debut; and Tacoma, which fell 8.3 percent in its second season since renovating Cheney Stadium. Five teams in the IL were down at least 6 percent: Syracuse (down 9.7 percent), Pawtucket (8.7 percent), Gwinnett (8.2 percent), Louisville (6.6 percent), Rochester (6.2 percent). Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which played its entire home schedule on the road while its ballpark went through a complete renovation this season, was down 14 percent.