Baseball In Buffalo Enjoys Moment In Spotlight




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12Is it time for a renaissance in Buffalo?

Not sure how much buzz the guy walking on a tightrope over Niagara Falls generated for the city—I personally felt ripped off when the television higher-ups made him wear a tether—but hosting the Triple-A all-star game did allow the baseball world to turn its attention to upstate New York for a night.

The Triple-A all-star game is the only sporting event with any national import on the Wednesday after the major league All-Star Game. (While some people might quibble over just how nationally important it is, we know that as Baseball America readers you have no problem with that assertion.)

And as written about in the previous issue of Baseball America, the Buffalo Bisons (International) wanted to serve as host to the game this year because not only are they celebrating the 25th anniversary of their ballpark, currently known as Coca-Cola Field, but also the 25th anniversary of the Triple-A all-star game itself.

Back in 1988 when both debuted, there were three Triple-A leagues, and the Bisons were members of the now-dissolved American Association. Local boosters also had major league dreams, envisioning the new park as the first step in attracting a big league team. Fans responded, with attendance going past one million in each of the park's first six seasons, and Buffalo still holds the single-season minor league attendance record with 1,240,951 fans in 1991.

The major league dream never came true, as Buffalo did not have the population or growth curve to develop momentum for major league baseball. The city remains home to an NFL and NHL franchise, but its population has been in decline since the 1950 census, when it peaked at 580,132 and ranked as the 15th-largest city in the United States. Buffalo remains the second-most populous city in New York, but in the 2010 census its population was 261,310, a 10.7 percent decline from just 10 years earlier, and roughly equivalent to what the city's population was in 1890.

The news is mitigated somewhat by the fact that some of the city's population decline has been from people moving to the suburbs, but even looking at overall county trends, the population is in decline.

In that context, it's amazing how well the Bisons have maintained their attendance numbers. By 2000, overall attendance declined to 667,540, which was still an average of more than 10,000 fans a game. Last season, the Bisons drew 575,296, or 8,219 a game. Given that the population of the area had declined and the ballpark was 10 years older, that's actually a solid result.

The numbers are down further this season, though it's dangerous to analyze attendance figures until the season is complete. But it's reasonable to think about ways the Bisons might be able to rekindle fan interest going forward, and one of those ways might be with a new affiliation.

The Bisons have been affiliated with the Mets since 2009, after being with the Indians from 1995-2009. Before that they were a longtime Pirates affiliate. While a New York team would seem to make sense, Buffalo is actually much closer to Cleveland and Pittsburgh than it is to New York, and probably much closer in spirit to those cities as well.

The Mets affiliation certainly has not done anything to reverse the attendance decline in Buffalo, so it might make sense for the closest major league team of all to step in.

That would be Toronto, which is just on the other side of Lake Ontario from Buffalo, less than two hours away. Buffalo fans have worried, in fact, that Toronto might eventually take their NFL franchise away. In this case, however, the Blue Jays could provide a boost to Buffalo.

The change would help the Jays as well, who currently have their Triple-A affiliation in Las Vegas (Pacific Coast) and would love to get back to the East. No one can talk about it until the affiliation shuffle begins after the season, but that's one move that would make a lot of sense.

Meanwhile, In Ottawa

Toronto's Canadian neighbor, Ottawa, also had its sights set on a Blue Jays affiliation for the team it hoped to get in the Eastern League. Those plans never came together for 2013, and the Blue Jays renewed their player-development contract with New Hampshire through the 2014 season, but Ottawa has not given up its pursuit of a new franchise. The city had a team in the IL until it moved to Lehigh Valley for the 2008 season, and it has ramped up efforts to bring a franchise back over the last year.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, city officials are optimistic they can get a team for the 2014 season, and they're working toward a fall deadline as they continue to talk to Massachusetts-based Beacon Sports Capital Partners, which is said to represent a team from the Eastern League.

I've never seen anything more than speculation about which EL franchise that might be, so Ottawa now goes into the "I'll believe it when I see it" file. If it does happen, though, it's hard not to think the Jays wouldn't be interested in having their top two affiliates within driving distance.