Down the stretch they come. The Charlotte Knights and Round Rock Express are neck and neck in the race for minor league baseball’s attendance crown as the season enters the stretch run.
The Knights, in the midst of a seven-game homestand, hold just a four-fan lead over the Express. Charlotte, through 58 openings, is averaging 8,912 fans per game. The Express, which return from an eight-game road trip on Tuesday, is averaging 8,908 fans per game through 60 openings.
The sellouts have come so fast and furious at Nat Bailey Stadium in recent years that the Vancouver Canadians have stopped announcing when they happen. Falling under the category of a nice problem to have, the team has been staying mum about crowd size so fans on the outside looking in don’t get discouraged.
“We were selling out so much that the community started thinking that you can’t get in,” Canadians President Andy Dunn said. “We had to take a different approach and tell the community that you can get in, but you have to plan accordingly. You can’t show up at 6:30 on a game night thinking that you are going to get a ticket.”
Do minor league teams care about whether or not they lead their sport in attendance? Absolutely. Being the top-drawing team in minor league baseball provides another way to market yourself to your fanbase, advertisers and sponsors. It also provides a little extra bragging rights.
Do teams follow the attendance standings daily, tracking how they compare with their peers? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.
Attendance is hardly an exact science and not all teams calculate it the same way—actual fannies in the seats vs. paid (and comp) tickets. One Minor League Baseball official once told me that teams are allowed leeway in how they determine their attendance so long as they follow the same method throughout the season.
No matter how you add it up, this season is particularly exciting. With a little more than a month to go, the Charlotte Knights (International League) and Round Rock Express (Pacific Coast) are in a near deadlock for the top spot in minor league attendance. Through Tuesday’s games, the Knights lead the Express by a mere 50 fans in average attendance. Each team had 49 openings this season, with Charlotte tallying an 8,898 per-game average compared to Round Rock’s 8,848 average . . . I know!!
The defending attendance champions might be down after a challenging start to the season, but they are not out of the running just yet.
The Indianapolis Indians topped the minors last season by averaging 9,159 fans per game but saw their chances of repeating take a significant hit during a cold and miserable month of April this season. The International League franchise has slowly and steadily chipped away at the lead held by the Charlotte Knights, Round Rock Express and Nashville Sounds, moving up from sixth place last week to fourth place in the current attendance standings.
Through Sunday’s games, the Indians were averaging 8,229 fans per game at Victory Field, trailing Charlotte (8,857), Round Rock (8,848) and Nashville (8,450). While the odds of closing the gap between the top three teams remain long—the Indians are currently about 25,000 fans off of their total from last season—a recent homestand in which the team averaged 10,423 fans per game has put them back in the running.
The minor leagues have experienced a similar dip at the gate, with attendance down 2.7 percent compared to this time last season. Minor league teams are averaging 3,898 fans per game this season through the month of June; last year they were attracting 4,004 fans at this time of year. The cause for the dip, however, is much clearer than their big league brethren’s decline. Simply put, the minors are still trying to recover from a cold, wet and miserable spring that led to the most April postponements in 11 years.
“Our product sells when the weather allows us to sell it properly,” said Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner, who noted that their business model is less reliant on wins and losses than the major leagues. “The next four to six weeks, that’s really where we can make some hay.”
For proof of the power of a well-run new ballpark, simply take a peek at the current attendance leaders. As the season crosses its midpoint, two of the top three draws in the minors are teams that recently struggled in outdated, out-of-the-way stadiums only to see the potential of their markets realized with moves to new downtown stadiums.
The Charlotte Knights (International League) have hardly slowed down in their fifth season at BB&T Ballpark, topping the minors by averaging 8,790 fans in 36 openings. Two spots down the list resides the Nashville Sounds (Pacific Coast), which likewise have continued to fill First Tennessee Park since its opening in 2015 and rank third in the minors this season with an 8,316 average in 39 openings.
It was a big day for the International League on Thursday, with four IL clubs drawing the biggest crowds in the minor leagues. Toledo, Columbus, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Rochester led the way on today’s attendance tracker and followed a familiar theme, as three of the four hosted Education Day promotions.