West Tenn faces uphill battle for fans
by Will Lingo
If you're just looking on the field, it's a great year for the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
Stocked with some of the best talent from the Cubs farm system--including red-hot outfielder Matt Murton, who was hitting .379-5-29 to lead the Southern League batting race--the Diamond Jaxx were 36-16 and would be running away with their division if not for the Carolina Mudcats, who were playing almost as well.
The view when you turn around and look at the stands is distinctly different, though. The Diamond Jaxx were averaging a little more than 1,500 fans a game this season, almost half of the average of the teams just ahead of them in the league attendance standings and light years away from Jacksonville, which leads the league with about 6,000 fans a game.
It's the continuation of a sad decline in Jackson, Tenn., which has lost almost all of the enthusiasm it had when the team debuted in 1998. The franchise has faced a series of setbacks since then, from a contentious relationship between former owner David Hersh and the city to a flirtation with moving last offseason.
That possibility of moving seemed to push the city's fans past the breaking point. While attendance had inevitably slipped from the first-year average of nearly 4,500 fans a game--best in the Southern League--West Tenn still averaged more than 2,500 fans a game last year and had the hope of new ownership.
When that ownership made a public effort to move the team to Greenville, S.C., after last season, however, it seemed to be an acknowledgement that Jackson wasn't viable as a long-term Double-A market. The Diamond Jaxx lost out on their bid to move to the Greenville territory, which instead went to the South Atlantic League's former Capital City Bombers, and they headed back to Jackson.
West Tenn seems to have gotten nothing but bad breaks since its debut season, when the franchise invited a certain smarmy minor league columnist to Pringles Park for a night of good-natured derision after I mocked the name of their new ballpark. Yes, it is named for the potato crisps.
Part of the problem clearly was Hersh, who we've written about many times before. Whatever his ultimate legacy in Jackson turns out to be, it's safe to say his time there didn't end well. He and city officials are still tangled up in lawsuits and countersuits, accusing one another of everything from slander to financial mismanagement.
The Jackson market also doesn't look like a Double-A market at first blush, with a county population of about 95,000. Such challenges have been overcome in other markets--look at the Mudcats, for example, who play in a small town about 15 miles outside Raleigh, N.C.--but it makes every year a challenge.
The current Diamond Jaxx ownership group overcame a similar challenge in Altoona, an Eastern League club that Bob Lozinak owned before buying the West Tenn franchise.
Altoona, Pa., is a slightly larger market, and the Curve have increased their attendance nearly every season since the franchise debuted in 1999. The Diamond Jaxx have been on a steady decline since 2000, and last year's franchise-low total of 159,308 fans is looking like a high bar this season.
The Diamond Jaxx drew just 1,527 on Opening Day and were drawing barely better than 1,000 fans a night by the end of May.
Tough In Tennessee
Current West Tenn general manager Jeff Parker was GM in Altoona before taking over in Jackson for the 2004 season.
"We knew that Tennessee was different than Pennsylvania, and the same things we did in Altoona might not work here," he told the Jackson Sun. "But we never dreamed it would be this hard."
The question now becomes whether the factors that are driving down attendance can be overcome. That the Diamond Jaxx have already tried to move suggests they don't think so, but city officials in Jackson still think the market is viable. If the Diamond Jaxx had made more progress in their efforts to move, it's likely the city would have mounted legal challenges to them leaving. And that's likely one of the factors in the decision to give the Greenville market to the Bombers.
Factors such as a tornado that devastated the city in the spring of 2003 or a West Nile Virus scare that has affected the city in the last few years would seem to be acute problems that could be overcome with diligent marketing efforts.
But years of declining attendance and apparent resentment of both past and current ownership may have poisoned the market for baseball success, at least at the gate, for the foreseeable future.
As Greenville found, sometimes the best way to rejuvenate yourself as a market is to let your current team leave and get a fresh start. More and more, that's looking like the right course for Jackson.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to email@example.com.