Some Teams Thrived In Tough Economy

The worst economy since the Great Depression didn’t stop a handful of teams from welcoming a record number of fans to their ballparks in 2009.

Minor league baseball failed to set an attendance record for the first time in six years, as 102 of 160 teams saw a decrease at the gate in 2009 compared to 2008. Bad weather was partly to blame, but those overall numbers would have been even worse if not for the debut of six new ballparks (which accounted for an additional 920,000 spectators in those markets).

However, even amid such gloom and doom, several teams saw a significant resurgence at the gate. Among those setting club records were the Tacoma Rainiers, New Britain Rock Cats, San Jose Giants, Visalia Rawhide, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Hudson Valley Renegades. The secrets to teams’ success varied from improved ownership (Lancaster) to ballpark renovations (Harrisburg, Visalia) to better weather (Iowa, Quad Cities) to first-place teams (San Jose, Tacoma).

Visalia (California) and Harrisburg (Eastern) led all teams in increased attendance (not including the six that debuted new ballparks) and both had renovated facilities to thank. Visalia saw attendance jump 57 percent, from 67,045 in 2008 to 105,405 last season. Harrisburg enjoyed a 39 percent increase, with attendance climbing from 164,182 to 228,741.

Renovations to Harrisburg’s Commerce Bank Park made what was once a deteriorating island ballpark into a jewel in the center of the Susquehanna River (we documented the Senators’ rise earlier this season). Visalia increased its seating capacity to 2,600 by expanding right-field seating and adding a Hall of Fame club. The Rawhide made Recreation Park more inviting by constructing a canopy above the grandstand for relief from the summer heat. They also modernized concessions, including the first kitchen in the 64-year-old ballpark’s history.

Team officials think last season’s success is only the beginning. “We’ve had a ridiculously high renewal rate,” Visalia president Tom Seidler said. “We’ve already increased mini-plans by 10 percent over last year. I think we’ll probably bump attendance up 10 to 12 percent next year.”

San Jose (California) set an attendance record for the third straight season. Iowa (Pacific Coast) and Quad Cities (Midwest) enjoyed improved weather after record flooding marred their 2008 seasons. The I-Cubs, which had dipped nearly 100,000 last season, returned to its 2007 attendance figures, while continued ballpark renovations helped the River Bandits grow their fan base.

The Perfect Partnership

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers’ record-breaking season had little to do with how they played the game, but rather who played it. It also proved once again, just like in Peoria and West Michigan, that affiliating with the hometown team pays off—quite literally.

In their first season since inking a player-development contract with the Brewers, the Timber Rattlers saw a 33 percent increase at the gate while drawing a club record 253,240 fans—all while fielding a team that finished third from the bottom in the Midwest League standings.

Losing had never been so much fun.

“This blew away our expectations,” Wisconsin general manager Rob Zerjav said. “We anticipated a nice bump in attendance after signing the agreement with the Brewers, but we didn’t expect to break an attendance record and all the things that came with it.”

An interest in the team never before seen in Appleton, Wis., is what accompanied a partnership with the major league team located roughly 120 miles away. More than 100 fans showed up at Fox Cities Stadium last fall to cheer news of the affiliation at a joint Brewers-Timber Rattlers press conference—that wasn’t open to the public. Offseason ticket sales were brisk, even though minor league baseball was approaching its first full season in the current economic downturn.

However the bellwether moment that tipped off Timber Rattlers’ staff about the storm of fans approaching came in the days leading up to the season. Amazingly, Wisconsin had never sold out Opening Day—not once since joining the Midwest League in 1962. The closest came when the current 5,500-seat ballpark debuted in 1995 and 3,700 fans turned out for its christening. This year, Opening Day was sold out two days in advance.

“We knew then that this was going to be a special year,” Zerjav said.

The Timber Rattlers didn’t sit by idly. Emphasizing their partnership with the Brewers through a variety of promotions was key to keeping the turnstiles spinning.

Wisconsin’s front-office staff traveled to Milwaukee last January to meet with Brewers officials and brainstorm promotions that could make the relationship a success for both clubs. One result was a package that included tickets to both a Brewers and Timber Rattlers game, and a commemorative T-shirt, for $15. More than 1,600 were sold.

Bobblehead giveaways of the clubs’ mascots (Bernie the Brewer and Fang) were a hit, and a handshake at the preseason press conference between the pair became a symbol of the partnership and a marketing tool. Billboards promoting the Timber Rattlers new slogan, “New Crew, More Fun,” dotted the path between Appleton and Milwaukee. Wisconsin brought in Paul Molitor for a night and sold the game out, creating the challenge of getting 5,000 fans an autograph from the Brewers Hall of Famer.

“We did anything and everything we could do to let people know we are a Brewers’ affiliate,” Zerjav said. “We became more of a statewide team.”

Pirates, Reds To Swap Affiliates

The Pirates are in the process of purchasing the Reds’ high Class A Sarasota franchise and moving it to their spring training complex in Bradenton, Fla., for the 2010 season, a pair of sources confirmed. The Reds’ high A affiliation would switch to Lynchburg, which has hosted the Pirates since 1995.

The two organizations would essentially swap player-development contracts in 2010, a provision that is in the PBA and simply requires all four teams to approve the deal. Such an approval would essentially come down to Lynchburg, since the Reds own the Sarasota affiliate. (The Red Sox and Astros pulled off a similar swap in 1999. Boston exchanged its low Class A Battle Creek affiliate for the Astros’ affiliate in Augusta.)

The Reds’ reasoning for the sale seems to be simple. They will debut their new spring training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., in 2010, and thus no longer have a need for a team in the Florida State League. The Pirates’ shift allows them to play at their complex, but also ends an affiliation with the Carolina League that began in 1962.

“If completed, the move will allow us to take even greater advantage of McKechnie Field and our new Pirate City facilities,” Pirates president Frank Coonely said in a statement. “In addition to the benefits to our minor league players and our development staff, the move of our High A team to Bradenton would allow us to have rehabbing major league players begin their return to work in Bradenton where we have our rehab coordinator and rehab facilities.”

Completion of the Sarasota sale is pending approval of the Florida State League, Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball. Both the National Association and the FSL have received the necessary paperwork.