As a whole, the California League had a bad year. Attendance fell in 2016 to its lowest total since 2005, and over a three-year span, the league has seen overall attendance fall by nearly 150,000 fans. Now the league is losing two franchises to the Carolina League.
However, one team has built its attendance while providing a helping hand to its community.
|Bob Freitas Awards|
|1989 Durham (Carolina)|
|1990 San Jose (California)|
|1991 Asheville (South Atlantic)|
|1992 Springfield (Midwest)|
|1993 South Bend (Midwest)|
|1994 Kinston (Carolina)|
|1995 Kane County (Midwest)|
|1996 Wisconsin (Midwest)|
|1997 Rancho Cucamonga (California)|
|1998 West Michigan (Midwest)|
|1999 Wilmington (Carolina)|
|2000 Charleston, S.C. (South Atlantic)|
|2001 Delmarva (South Atlantic)|
|2002 Fort Myers (Florida State)|
|2003 Modesto (California)|
|2004 Dayton (Midwest)|
|2005 Lakewood (South Atlantic)|
|2006 Daytona (Florida State)|
|2007 Lake Elsinore (California)|
|2008 Greensboro (South Atlantic)|
|2009 San Jose (California)|
|2010 Lynchburg (Carolina)|
|2011 Fort Wayne (Midwest)|
|2012 Greenville (South Atlantic)|
|2013 Clearwater (Florida State)|
|2014 West Michigan (Midwest)|
|2015 Myrtle Beach (Carolina)|
|2016 Inland Empire (California)|
The Inland Empire 66ers have been a bright spot for the California League. With three other franchises within 50 miles, the 66ers have held the second-best average attendance since 2014, despite a divided fan base.
This wasn’t always the case. In 2008, Inland Empire dropped from near the top of the league’s attendance, back toward the middle. This was a trend until the team reversed course in 2013.
“Up through the big recession, attendance fell,” 66ers general manager Joe Hudson said. “The years of 2010-2012 in this area were kind of rough. (The economy) dipped and I’m kind of seeing attendance from 2013 on, we’ve had some steady growth.”
In three-year increments, from 2011-13 to 2014-16, the 66ers raised their average attendance by 162 fans, behind only the Lancaster Jethawks over the same span.
“When you go to the games and sit in the bullpen, people want to interact,” said Michael Smith, a current Angels minor leaguer and former 66ers pitcher. “That grew from when I got there to when I left, and you could see a noticeable difference in how many fans were there.”
All five Californa-based major league teams have their high Class A affiliate in the California League, and in 2011 the Angels brought their affiliate slightly closer to home when they signed a player-development contract with Inland Empire. Swapping from the Dodgers to the Angels did not show an immediate impact on attendance, however.
“The vast majority of what we see, our season ticket-holders, and our regular, everyday fans are 66ers fans,” Hudson said.
The 66ers have persevered in spite of trying times for the community of San Bernardino, and in fact have helped with the healing. In December 2015, 14 people were shot to death in a terrorist act just miles from where the 66ers play. The following night, the team helped organize a vigil at the stadium.
“I thought our entire organization did a phenomenal job with our efforts to help the community heal and to give back. The vigil was the next day so that’s kind of the first reaction of, ‘How can we help?’ ” Hudson said. “What I was actually more proud of for our efforts with the team is we spent the next two weeks doing nothing but taking in orders and shipping out T-shirts. We were able to raise $35,000 by being the hub for that shirt sale.”
In a follow-up effort by the team, on April 15 this season, both the 66ers and San Jose Giants wore uniforms and hats with “SB Strong” on the front. The auctioned off the uniforms after the game, with the proceeds benefiting the Arrowhead United Way SB Relief Fund and the San Bernardino Police Foundation.
“Once we were able to bring that in, we were able to raise another $10,000-$15,000. It was nice to be able to be that community partner,” Hudson said. “Obviously no team wants to be in a situation where you have to do something like that, but our staff and organization—from game day staff to full-time staff—everybody stepped up huge. It was great to see.”
For community and entertainment, the Inland Empire 66ers hit their mark in 2016 and solidified the growing reputation as one of the best franchises in the minor leagues.