The annual reminder that minor league baseball is in the midst of a golden era came with the news at the end of the season that the affiliated minors had once again set an attendance record.
Even with franchise values increasing seemingly with each team sold and marketing and sponsorship deals on the rise, there is no better indication of the sport’s health than the sound of clicking turnstiles’"which in 2007 turned 42,812,812 times.
The attendance mark’"which includes the Mexican League’"topped last year’s record by over 1.1 million fans and marked the fourth straight season a new record had been established. Before that, the overall minor league attendance record had stood since 1948, the height of the post-World War II boom.
The 16-team Pacific Coast League paced the minors and broke its own record by drawing 7,420,095 fans this season, edging the 14-team International League by roughly 700,000. For the eighth consecutive season, Sacramento topped the PCL and all domestic teams by drawing 710,253 fans to Raley Field.
Sacramento averaged 10,003 fans this season, and since debuting in 2000 has averaged 11,019.
The Name Game
Sacramento was hardly alone in its success at the gate. Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre certainly reaped the benefits of its new affiliation with the Yankees (and new name). After selling the equivalent of 47,000 tickets in its first day of sales after announcing the Yankees were coming to town, the team increased its overall attendance by more than 200,000 and drew a total of 580,908 in 66 openings’"fifth-best in the IL.
“We were used to one or two sellouts a year (as a Phillies affiliate),” said Scranton GM Jeremy Ruby, adding that he knew the northeastern Pennsylvania city had a strong Yankees following but did not expect it to translate so strongly at the ticket booth. “It’s been a whirlwhind.”
In fact, becoming a Yankees affiliate and being purchased by Mandalay Baseball’"arguably the most successful multi-team ownership group in the minors’"turned out to be a perfect storm. It brought together the most marketable team in pro sports with owners experienced in the art of fan entertainment and willing to commit resources. The team boosted merchandise sales significantly and landed a naming rights deal with PNC.
Braving The Storm
The power of a name can also be seen with Red Sox affiliate Portland (Eastern), even if its fifth consecutive season with a team attendance record was blurred by bad weather.
Portland, in its fifth year with the Red Sox, drew 421,368 fans this season despite losing seven home dates. That was an overall increase of more than 20,000 from 2006, when the team lost eight openings to bad weather.
In fact, you need to look back to 2004 to find a season when Portland wasn’t affected by poor weather. That season the Sea Dogs lost just one opening and drew 427,709 fans. The team likely would have broken that mark this year with a full slate of dates, because its average attendance increased slightly to a record 6,483.
“When we first started here we were a Marlins affiliate,” Portland president/GM Charlie Eshbach said. “We were a hometown team and the fans supported us. But deep down they are Red Sox fans because this is New England. Now we’re more than a hometown team.”
Fellow Eastern League franchise Erie also felt the sting of poor weather this season, yet still managed to increase overall attendance by 14,000 despite losing nine home dates’"tied for second-most in the minors.
The Sea Wolves drew 220,401 fans, for an average of 3,613 that projects to 256,513 under a complete 71-game schedule. Erie GM John Frey contends the number would have been even higher because several postponements came on the days of key promotions’"including the final Monday Buck Night of the year, traditionally one of Erie’s biggest gates, and a Family Buck Night that had a presale of over 4,000.
“It’s like when you play a good round of golf and think about those two putts you missed,” Frey said.
While Erie’s bad luck may have come by chance, its improved attendance figures did not. A $3 million renovation that included a new picnic area and beer garden in right field, in addition to better use of advertising dollars, was at the heart of the team’s attendance spike.
Building For Success
Similar to Erie, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Carolina) enjoyed a boost thanks largely to a $2.5 million renovation project that included a new video board and a beach seating area, complete with lifeguard chairs, along the left-field line.
In the team’s first full season under the new ownership group led by Chuck Greenberg and Todd Parnell, Myrtle Beach drew 215,059 fans’"the third-highest total in franchise history’"and saw average attendance climb 8 percent from last season to 3,117.
As part of a stadium redesign, Myrtle Beach moved the visitor’s bullpen from beyond left field to beside a dugout, and set up 500-seat bleachers in its place. The Pelicans built a new ticket office with twice as many sales windows, alleviating the long lines fans often endured to buy tickets.
“With 350,000 visitors every week (to Myrtle Beach), we need to get a good portion of that to the ballpark,” said GM North Johnson, whose club hosts the 2008 Carolina League all-star game.
Other notable attendance achievements from 2007 include:
• The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes paced the California League for the 15th consecutive season by drawing 290,843 fans’"the organization’s most since 2002.
• The Tri-City Dust Devils (Northwest) set a franchise single-season attendance record in 2007 by drawing 75,308’"an increase of 11 percent from last season and 8 percent from the previous high in 2002.
• Spokane led the Northwest League in overall attendance and averaged 5,053 fans a game’"the most in the club’s 104-year history.
• The State College Spikes (New York-Penn) saw their attendance increase by more than 13,000 to 151,394’"sixth-highest in the 14-team league’"in the club’s second season.
• Indianapolis (International) saw its attendance increase 10 percent from last season by drawing 586,786 (a 8,383 average), the club’s highest total since 2001.