The minor league regular season doesn't officially come to a close until the Pioneer League wraps up its schedule on Thursday, but this year's attendance champion has already been crowned.
The Charlotte Knights (International) ran away with the honor by attracting 687,715 spectators during their debut season at BB&T Ballpark—nearly 30,000 more than second-place finisher, and last year's attendance leader, Indianapolis. The Knights' total is the most for any team since the Sacramento River Cats (Pacific Coast) drew 700,168 in 2008, their last of nine straight seasons atop the minor leaguer leaderboard.
|Lehigh Valley IronPigs||International||614,888||9,042|
|Sacramento River Cats||Pacific Coast||607,839||8,561|
|Round Rock Express||Pacific Coast||595,700||8,390|
|Albuquerque Isotopes||Pacific Coast||564,625||8,066|
|El Paso Chihuahuas||Pacific Coast||560,997||7,901|
|Toledo Mud Hens||International||545,265||7,680|
|Pawtucket Red Sox||International||515,665||7,367|
|Iowa Cubs||Pacific Coast||492,060||7,029|
|Salt Lake Bees||Pacific Coast||470,565||6,722|
|Fresno Grizzlies||Pacific Coast||467,862||6,781|
|Oklahoma City RedHawks||Pacific Coast||429,190||6,045|
|Rochester Red Wings||International||422,454||6,401|
Charlotte could be poised for a similar run after years of finishing at the bottom of International League while playing at Knights Stadium, the outdated, out-of-the-way ballpark located 20 minutes south of town in Fort Mill, S.C.
The Knights more than doubled their attendance from last season (254,834) at their new $55 million downtown ballpark, and the big 2014 campaign confirms what Knights and minor league officials have long presumed: that Charlotte has the potential to be one of the top markets in the minors.
"This puts them in the top echelons of (minor league) ballparks," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said during BB&T Ballpark's grand opening on April 11. "And the market is going to respond. This place is going to jump."
O'Conner was right. The Knights sold out 32 of their 71 home dates and averaged 9,686 fans per game, also the most in the minors. They drew more than 9,000 fans in each of their final 23 home games, dating back to July 13.
Charlotte's success has also been good for minor league baseball as a whole. New Triple-A ballparks in Charlotte and El Paso (Pacific Coast), where the Chihuahuas debuted this season to much fanfare after the franchise spent the previous three seasons in Tucson, has given the sport a significant boost. El Paso attracted 560,997 fans in 71 home dates—which included four games in Tucson in April while the finishing touches were being put on its new ballpark—to finish fourth in the PCL in overall attendance. In 2013, Tucson drew just 200,077 fans to finish a distant last in the 16-team league.
Charlotte and El Paso combined for 1,248,712 fans, compared to 454,911 between the two franchises in 2013.
Unofficially, the minors have totaled 42,383,689 fans this season—a figure that includes the Triple-A Mexican League—and will increase slightly after the final three days of the Pioneer League season. That's good for a healthy increase on the 41.5 million the minors drew last season and the biggest total since 2008, when the sport drew 43.3 million fans to end a five-year streak of attendance records. A sour economy sent attendance spiraling the next two years before it leveled off the past three seasons.
The top four attendance totals of this season come from the International League, with Indianapolis (660,289), Columbus (628,980) and Lehigh Valley (614,888) trailing Charlotte. Though Lehigh Valley's season would be the envy of most teams, 2014 was a challenging campaign for a franchise that topped the minors in attendance in 2011 and '12. Mother Nature took its toll on the IronPigs this season, washing four nights off their schedule, including key dates such as Opening Day, July 4 and two Friday nights.
The Durham Bulls placed eighth in the International League while setting a franchise record for overall attendance at 533,033. The team averaged 7,615 fans per game in its first season since Durham Bulls Athletic Park had a $23 million offseason renovation.
The Sacramento River Cats finished atop the Pacific Coast League in attendance and placed fifth overall by totaling 607,839 in 71 openings. The River Cats have topped the PCL in attendance every season but one since debuting in 2000 and were the best draw in the minors from 2000-09.