Minors Hold Steady Amid Recession

If flat is indeed the new up, then Minor League Baseball had one hell of a season.

The days of setting attendance records annually may be gone, but the sport did an admirable job of weathering a difficult economy in 2010. MILB's 15 leagues (including the Triple-A Mexican League) drew 41,452,436 fans this season, a modest 0.5 percent decrease from last year's total of 41,644,518.

"Once again, Minor League Baseball is showing its resiliency in the current economic conditions," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said. "While the economy sputters in many areas of the country, our fans continue to respond to our product. For Minor League Baseball to be down less than 1 percent in season attendance is truly a testament to the loyalty of our fans and the work of our teams."

The minors remain well behind its pre-recession glory days. That's when the sport, amid a ballpark building boom, set attendance records for five consecutive seasons—culminating in 2008 with a total of 43,263,740. But it appears to be heading in the right direction. More teams saw an increase at the gate this season than last, with 63 of 160 teams averaging more fans this season. In 2009, just 58 of 160 teams increased their average attendance.

O'Conner noted that the sport may very well have seen an overall increase if not for 100 rainouts in August. However, the minors would have certainly fallen even further behind its 2009 total if not for the performance of a handful of teams.

Two full-season club saw its average attendance increase by triple-digit percentages from 2009. The high Class A Winston-Salem Dash, whose move to a new ballpark was delayed a year until this season due to a lack of financing that halted construction, saw its average attendance spike 409 percent, from 901 last season to 4,587 in 2010. Meanwhile, the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels enjoyed a stunning return to baseball after relocating from the struggling market in Norwich, Conn., and boosted its average attendance by 115 percent, jumping from  the 3,076 the Navigators averaged in 2009 to an Eastern League-best 6,626 this year.

Short-season Oneonta owner Miles Prentice relocated the club to the vacant Connecticut market and saw its average attendance jump 116 percent, from 692 in 2009 in Oneonta to 1,486 in Connecticut.

Three ballparks debuted in 2010, and as has been the case in recent years, the new facilities drew big crowds. Winston-Salem's BB&T Ballpark was obviously a hit, but was so Double-A Tulsa's new downtown stadium. The Drillers averaged 6,185 fans this season at ONEOK FIeld, an increase of 33 percent from 2009 that propelled the team from sixth in Texas League attendance last year to second this season. 

"Everything that happened at the stadium this year exceeded our expectations," Drillers general manager Mike Melega told the Tulsa World. "We hoped to reach 400,000 for special events plus Drillers games, and we got 408,000 just on Drillers games. That's a tremendous tribute to our staff, to the community for supporting ONEOK Field, and validation that going downtown was the right place for the city of Tulsa and our fans."

Double-A Harrisburg unveiled a completely renovated Metro Bank Ballpark–and the most-hyped pitching prospect in the game–that lifted the Senators from their usual spot as one of the Eastern League's worst draws. With the assistance of Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg, the only island ballpark in the minors boosted its attendance 17 percent this season, from 3,574 in 2009 to 4,205 this season–good for seventh in the 12-team league. Its 294,325 total set a franchise record.

“Obviously, the new stadium is first-class and is an amazing venue, but I think it’s more than that,” Senators president Kevin Kulp, who joined the team in 2008 when it ranked last in Eastern League attendance, told the Patriot (Pa.) News. “We have been working hard for three years now to create an entertainment experience that rivals the best in minor league baseball. I won’t say we’re there yet, but we are closer, and our fans are really enjoying themselves.”

Most Improved Teams

These 10 affiliates saw the biggest gains in average attendance from 2009 to 2010.

Team (League) 2010 Total 2010 Average 2009 Average Difference
Winston-Salem (Carolina) 307,300 4,587 901 409.10%
Richmond (Eastern) 463,842 6,626 3,076 115.41%
Connecticut* (NY-Penn) 50,511 1,486 692 114.74%
Bradenton# (Florida State) 51,856 823 528 55.87%
Tulsa (Texas) 408,183 6,185 4,652 32.95%
Harrisburg (Eastern) 294,325 4,205 3,574 17.66%
Lakeland (Florida State) 64,010 1,016 885 14.80%
Brevard County (Florida State) 89,729 1,339 1,185 13.19%
Colo Springs (Pacific Coast) 328,003 4,824 4,351 10.87%
Modesto (California) 180,344 2,692 2,431 10.74%