Facility improvements, diversity help MiLB clubs reverse 10-year attendance low
Ballpark upgrades, and a more inclusive atmosphere inside them, helped push Minor League Baseball attendance back above 41 million this season after a one-year blip below that mark in 2018.
Attendance for the 176 MiLB teams was up 2%, or 984,000 fans, compared to 2018.
Pat O’Conner, MiLB’s president and CEO, said facility improvements played a big role in putting fans in seats, and he pointed to the success of Pride Nights and the Copa de la Diversión initiatives for adding to the overall numbers. Those two promotions made up 5% of all domestic games in 2019.
Seventy-one teams held Pride Nights this season, drawing more than 300,000 fans total, a 4.8% increase versus the same dates in 2018. And 72 clubs worked with local Hispanic communities to adopt culturally relevant monikers for select Copa games, an effort that MiLB said drew 20% more fans to ballparks than non-Copa games held on similar weeknights.
“Over the past couple years, we’ve really been able to address different audiences and socio-economic levels,” O’Conner said. “You can pay $5 to $6 and spread out your blanket and sit on the berm with the family, or put on a sports coat and go upstairs and sit inside and eat prime rib.”
O’Conner also credited the huge turnouts at new ballparks in Las Vegas, Amarillo, Texas, and Fayetteville, N.C., for boosting attendance. Looking ahead, MiLB projects that new ballparks set to open next season in Fredericksburg, Va., Kannapolis, N.C., Madison, Ala., and Wichita, Kan., should add an additional 700,000 fans.
The highest total attendance in MiLB history was 43.2 million in 2008.
First look podcast, with MiLB discussion at the 10:55 mark:
“The great thing about new ballparks is the natural excitement on opening day, of course,” O’Conner said. “But it’s equally exciting to go back in subsequent years to see the development that is going on around them. The new ballparks quickly become part of how the city defines itself.”
Among the MiLB attendance stories this year:
■ Most MiLB followers would have expected Las Vegas’ Class AAA attendance to jump, thanks to a new $150 million stadium and a rebrand of the team. But the Aviators were up 92% over their average attendance of the past five years, a jump that surpassed most expectations.
The Aviators, who moved from downtown Vegas to the suburb of Summerlin, averaged 9,241 fans per game, breaking the franchise record by over 225,000 fans. They became the first team since 2015 to draw more than 650,000 fans in a season, a feat the Aviators accomplished with two fewer home dates.
■ Excluding teams that built a new stadium or moved, Syracuse’s jump of 50,146 was the biggest in Minor League Baseball. The club did rebrand, shifting from the Chiefs and an affiliation with the Washington Nationals to the Mets and an affiliation with New York’s National League team, a move that undoubtedly helped business. Syracuse’s attendance was up 21% over the average of the previous five seasons. Oh, and a guy named Tim Tebow played 39 games in Syracuse this season until a finger injury in July ended his season prematurely.
■ GM Mike Melega said that Class AA Tulsa got off to a good start in 2019 and never lost momentum, increasing its overall attendance by 24,105. Interest in the team was high following a 2018 Texas League championship and back-to-back MLB Rookie of the Year awards for former Drillers now with the parent Los Angeles Dodgers, Corey Seager in 2016 and Cody Bellinger in 2017. Dodgers pitching ace Clayton Kershaw also did an April rehab stint in Tulsa, which ballooned a typical Tuesday night crowd significantly, and the Drillers gave away replica championship rings to fans. The Drillers, who had just two rainouts all season, also instituted a new flexible ticketing plan that drew new customers and could be put to even more effective use in 2020.
■ The lame-duck Class A Mobile (Ala.) BayBears went out with a bang, bringing in 19,350 more fans than the previous season and finishing with their best average attendance (1,587) since 2014. The BayBears are moving five hours north to Madison, Ala., next season, where they will become the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
■ There were 116 clubs that experienced total attendance drops. Of the top 20 clubs in total attendance, 16 had declines this year.
■ The Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox suffered a total attendance decline of 63,801 to 331,010 — a 16% decrease from 2018. The PawSox are moving to Worcester, Mass., after the 2020 season. But it was the Colorado Springs market that suffered the worst dip in attendance, largely because its team dropped from Class AAA to Rookie-Advanced ball. The Colorado Springs Vibe drew 137,294 this year, a drop of 125,363. On the plus side, its attendance was quadruple what it was in 2018 when the club played as the Helena (Mont.) Brewers.
Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.