The Durham Bulls took a unique approach to the opening round of the International League playoffs.
They marketed it.
Blessed with a team that secured a postseason berth two weeks before the regular season concluded, the Bulls front office had the unusual opportunity to plan ahead for the first two games of their postseason series against the Indianapolis Indians at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. So they decided to put to the test a belief largely accepted around the minors: Fans aren’t interested in the playoffs.
The Bulls tried tugging at their fans' hearts—or more specifically their bellies—by bringing back one of their most popular promotions of the season. Durham welcomed eight food trucks to the ballpark last Wednesday evening, parked them beyond the right-field fence and invited fans to choose from a variety of local mobile fare. The same promotion that lured 6,109 fans in July produced modest results in September, with 3,441 fans coming out to watch the Bulls knock off Indianapolis—less than half the team's regular season average of 7,125. The team drew 3,916 for the following evening's game that included a craft beer rodeo. The Bulls didn't draw fewer than 4,000 fans in any of their 15 home games in August.
Still, the Bulls considered the crowd a victory. The attendance was about 500 more than they averaged for the playoffs over the past several seasons, director of marketing Scott Carter said.
"On a Wednesday night, that attendance would have been much lower if we hadn't done the event," he said.
It's the need for an event beyond the field that highlights one of the many differences between the major and minor leagues. Winning simply doesn't matter as much in the minors. The Bulls have reached the postseason in six of the past seven years, including an International League and Triple-A championship in 2009. For the playoffs they count on their diehard fans to come out and cheer them along.
"The crowd is so much more tuned into the game. It's so much more of a baseball-savvy crowd," Carter said. "They don't need to get prompted to stand up for a two-pitch strike. . . . We had 3,400. That was the announced crowd. It was a lot louder than some of our 7,000-people crowds."
In the Southern League, the Mobile BayBears are chasing down their third straight title—a feat that hasn't been done since the Montgomery Rebels won three straight in 1975-77. Yet that on-field success doesn't translate into off-field attention.
"If winning championships was the answer to filling the ballpark, we'd be very lucky," Mobile president Bill Shanahan said.
But it's not. And while fans greet postseason baseball in the big leagues as the culmination of a season—or longer in some cases—their minor league brethren generally welcome the playoffs with a shrug.
Much of it comes down to a simple matter of timing. A Southern League title may not have quite the same appeal as an American League pennant, and the minors' family-friendly marketing approach that has helped the sport grow over the past 25 years has also made the action on the field secondary. But more noteworthy are the many distractions that accompany the calendar flipping from August to September.
"The games are not on the schedule. School is back in session. Predominantly in the Southeast, college football is king," Shanahan said of the challenges of the postseason.
That also means that playoff games are not included in ticket packages—from season tickets to partial plans to group sales—and minor league teams are left without their most consistent fan base for the playoffs.
"You just do whatever is necessary to get the word out to the groups that have been there all season long and entice them out," Shanahan said. "You just do whatever is necessary to get the word out."
In many ways, the playoffs are a throwback back to the old days of the minors. When marketing of games was minimal, promotions largely consisted of PA announcers calling out raffle numbers, and the action on the field was the draw. So for baseball purists, now may be the perfect time to take in a game.
"It was a lot of fun," Carter said. "We didn't scale back our promotions too much, we just did them early in the game, and so when it got later in the game we let the baseball do the entertaining . . .
"We'll need to rely on those folks to drive ticket sales for the second round. Fans who have the playoff bug–they may be small, but they are mighty."
Where Winning Matters
Unlike most minor league markets, winning matters to Rochester Red Wings fans—at least that's what team president Naomi Silver said last offseason when the International League franchise was considering ending its 10-year affiliation with the Twins after consecutive 100-loss seasons. Rochester decided to stick with the Twins, who responded by hiring a new manager, and putting an emphasis on winning.
What resulted was a late-August surge that culminated with Rochester securing a playoff berth on the final day of the season, its first playoff berth since 2006. Even with just two days to plan for the postseason, Silver said she wasn't worried about the crowd.
"The playoffs kind of speak for themselves," Silver said. "We had a packed house on Monday (for the regular season finale) and announced right then and there that tickets would go on sale immediately. And there was a long line right then to pick up tickets for games one and two. We couldn't have asked for a better scenario. We couldn't have asked for anything more."
The Red Wings totaled 8,587 over the first two games of their series against the Pawtucket Red Sox—a solid showing for a team that averaged 6,098 per game during the regular season. Those games represented the end of the line for the Red Wings, as they lost in five games to the PawSox. Still, Silver said being part of the playoffs mattered both financially to the team and spiritually to its fans.
"I had forgotten how fun it is," Silver said.
"It's very important to us. Having these extra days will probably give us the ability to consider doing something fun at the ballpark, or an improvement that we haven't thought of before. Every little bit helps."