New teams keep Texas League crowds rolling in
by Will Lingo
After last season, Texas League president Tom Kayser knew his league would have to move forward without its flagship franchise. The Round Rock Express, arguably the best Double-A franchise ever, would move up to the Pacific Coast League in 2005.
“I felt like we would be taking a small step back,” Kayser said. “It’s tough to lose your number one franchise and not feel both regret and nostalgia. Round Rock was really a crown jewel.”
The league might never find one franchise that’s the equal of the Express, but its combination of two new franchises might mean the league is even better. The Corpus Christi Hooks have replaced the Express, and the former El Paso Diablos have moved to Springfield, Mo., and become the Cardinals. And while it’s still early, both franchises were averaging better than 7,000 fans a night in April. Round Rock (9,846 a night) and El Paso (3,422) averaged a little over 13,000 fans combined last year.
“They may well draw more than Round Rock and El Paso, which is stunning,” Kayser said. “We may not take a step backward. We may be at or above our attendance from last year.”
The league drew 2.67 million fans last year, just off the record of 2.77 million it drew in 2003. And with holdover franchises like Frisco, San Antonio and Tulsa opening the season with better than expected attendance, it could be another boom year in Texas.
“Change is inevitable, and if it happens you want to prepare for it and have it happen in the best possible way,” Kayser said. “We are the beneficiaries of a number of very positive things.”
Change was a foreign concept to the league before Round Rock came along for the 2000 season. Before that season, the league hadn’t added a new team since 1987, when the Wichita Wranglers joined up. The league remains remarkably stable, but since Round Rock replaced Jackson in 2000, Frisco has replaced Shreveport, and now Springfield and Corpus Christi have replaced El Paso and Round Rock.
The net result for the league should be overwhelmingly positive. Corpus Christi is a much smaller market than Round Rock, but the combination of an affiliation with the nearby Astros and ownership by Nolan Ryan’s group, Ryan Sanders Baseball, virtually assures a certain level of success.
“It’s been overwhelming the reception we’ve gotten,” said Matt Hicks, the Hooks’ radio voice and media-relations director who worked for 10 years in El Paso before coming to Corpus Christi. “It’s not just that it’s a new team, it’s the Astros and the Ryan family—it all adds up to almost the fever pitch we’ve seen here.”
Corpus Christi has a limited history of professional baseball, with no team staying longer than five years and no affiliated team playing in the city for nearly 30 years. But with the growth of the city and diversification of its economy—to say nothing of lovely Whataburger Field built right on the city’s ship channel—the city is clearly ready for a team now.
More than 8,200 people turned out on Opening Night at a ballpark with 5,314 seats and room for about 2,000 fans on berms, so that’s a pretty good indication of demand.
In Springfield, the turnout has been even greater. More than 8,800 people came out on Opening Night, and two exhibition games featuring the big league Cardinals each drew more than 10,000 fans to John Q. Hammons Field. Springfield, in addition to having the same pent-up demand seen in Corpus Christi, has the additional benefit of being smack in the middle of Cardinals country.
“You have a team owned by the major league club, within a territory that’s just bonkers for that major league club,” Kayser said. “I can’t think of any parallel for that in our league.”
Kayser had the good fortune to attend Opening Night in both cities, and said he came away impressed with both operations.
“The fan experience (in Springfield) was just phenomenal,” Kayser said. “They’re doing a great job, and they have a tremendous fan base that’s just been pining for baseball.”
And they have Round Rock to thank for it. The Ryans wanted to get into minor league baseball, the Jackson franchise was available, and the Austin/Round Rock market was waiting to explode in the right situation, which the Ryans helped create. Their success led to the success in Frisco, as well as showing Corpus Christi and Springfield the benefits minor league baseball can bring.
So even though the Express has moved on to bigger things in the PCL, its legacy in the Texas League continues, and fans in the Lone Star State and beyond will reap the benefits.
You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.