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Good, bad news with attendance

by Will Lingo
September 9, 2004

If you're a minor league baseball fan, chances are you were part of a record-breaking crowd at some point this season.

Just check the news reports or press releases from minor league teams across the country as the minor league season wrapped up on Labor Day weekend.

Attendance records were falling everywhere. In the Eastern League alone, at least three teams set new attendance records. The Portland Sea Dogs drew their 4 millionth fan this season and drew 434,684 for the season, surpassing the 429,763 fans they drew in 1995, their second season of existence.

The New Britain Rock Cats passed the 300,000 mark for the first time in franchise history, drawing 311,671 fans. And it wouldn't be a minor league season if the Reading Phillies didn't break an attendance record. This year it was for average attendance: 7,138 a game in 67 home dates, a total of 478,611 fans for the year.

Yet the biggest minor league attendance record of all should have been the story at the end of the season: the all-time minor league attendance record. The holy grail has been 39,782,717 fans, a record set in 1949 when the minor leagues comprised 448 teams. The current group of 176 minor league franchises has been approaching the record in recent years, coming within 700,000 fans last season. Many people thought 2004 would be the season the record finally fell.

As the end of the season came and went, though, Minor League Baseball was silent. Did the record fall? Did attendance fall off at the end of the season? Did the cancellation of the last weekend of Florida State League action hurt? Your guess was as good as ours.

Record Blown Away?

Part of the problem was hurricane-related. After Hurricane Charley hit central Florida, Hurricane Frances came through and caused even more widespread damage, knocking out power for millions across the state. Frances ended the Florida State League season early, and it also kept the offices of Minor League Baseball, based in St. Petersburg, shut down for five days.

When minor league officials were finally able to get back to work, they added up preliminary attendance numbers and came up with bad news: Approximately 39.5 million fans came out to minor league games this season, the second-highest total ever but not good enough to break the record.

Minor league officials declined comment on the attendance until they could get the final, official total, but August crowds must have seen a huge dropoff for the record not to be broken. At the end of July, Minor League Baseball still had an optimistic tone when it released its monthly numbers.

About 8.7 million fans went to minor league games in July, pushing the season total to 29,789,881. That represented an increase of 275,422 fans over the same date in 2003. There was even more reason to assume the record might fall, as the higher total came in 330 fewer playing dates because the season opened later this year. So at the end of July, there were more games to be played than at the same time last year. Average attendance also was up by about 200 fans a game, an increase of 5.4 percent.

Plenty Of Good News

So what went wrong? We'll have to wait for the official breakdown to see for sure. Weather certainly played a part. Hurricanes not only tore apart the end of the Florida State League schedule—which would have the least effect on attendance because FSL crowds aren't large, anyway—but also resulted in cancellations in several leagues on the East Coast.

But could it really hurt that much? A rumor among minor league cynics posited that Minor League Baseball has downplayed attendance this season because it doesn't want to appear too prosperous as negotiations continue with Major League Baseball over the Professional Baseball Agreement. (The PBA governs the relationship between the minors and majors and is up for renewal, but that's a whole other column.)

The rumor doesn't really wash, though, because there's so much other positive attendance news out there that minor league prosperity isn't hard to find.

Take the Lowell Spinners (New York-Penn), who announced their fifth consecutive season sellout. Their attendance of 185,000 meant they sold all 5,000 tickets to every home game again this year. The team now has a sellout streak of 194 games.

And the Round Rock Express bid a fond farewell to the Texas League, drawing a team-record 11,287 fans to a game against San Antonio to bring season attendance to 689,286. It was the Express' fifth season, and the fifth time the franchise established a new Double-A attendance record. The Texas League franchise moves to Corpus Christi next season, with a Pacific Coast League team taking over in Round Rock.

So even if the ultimate record still stands as the unreachable star, most minor league teams still had plenty of reason to celebrate as they closed their gates for 2004.

You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to willlingo@baseballamerica.com.

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