Theories abound for the cause of Major League Baseball’s sagging attendance figures this season: too many home runs and strikeouts are taking the excitement out of the game, the cost of attending games is too high, the games are simply too long to keep our attention. Research studies and initiatives have been launched to account for and correct the roughly 6 percent decline, with Commissioner Rob Manfred becoming the champion of pace-of-play reform.
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.”
Greg Coleman has worked in minor league baseball for 20 years, including serving in his current role as president of the Erie SeaWolves since 2011. He understands that cold and wet weather can make the first month of the baseball season a challenging, and sometimes miserable, experience. Yet he, like many minor league operators across the Northeast and Midwest, were left shaking their heads about what Mother Nature threw at them in April.
“The weekend we opened at home was remarkable,” Coleman said of the season-opening, seven-game homestand that included two postponements and four games with first-pitch temperatures in the 30s. “We’re two hours from Akron, yet the temperatures were 30 to 40 degrees lower in Erie. We know how to handle cold and snow in Erie, but April really tested our resolve.”
And for good reason. Erie (Eastern League) had the coldest ballpark in the minor leagues in April. During nine games and two postponements at UPMC Park, the SeaWolves averaged temperatures of just 44.3 degrees while drawing 1,687 fans per game. Erie’s chilly beginning to the season edged the Lansing Lugnuts (45.6 degrees), Buffalo Bisons (45.8), Syracuse Chiefs (46.3) and West Michigan Whitecaps (46.6) for the coldest start to the season.
“We played nine of our eleven April home dates, but the cold was unrelenting,” Coleman said. “One day, we had to clear 4 inches of snow and then play a doubleheader with temperatures in the 30s.”
Pat O’Conner’s message at the Opening Session of the Winter Meetings last December at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort was similar to ones he had given each of the previous 10 years as president of Minor League Baseball. Speaking to an almost entirely white and majority male audience of minor league owners and executives, O’Conner stressed the need to diversify, both in the front office and stands, or teams will face the risk of being left behind in an increasing multicultural world.
“If you are not actively engaged in diversifying your staff, you are not preparing for your future,” O’Conner said, pointing out that 28 percent of the sport’s 160 teams play in markets with minority populations of at least 50 percent. “If you are not developing marketing campaigns to effectively cultivate the minority populations in your market, you are missing significant revenue opportunities and you are not preparing for your future.”
The refrain, O’Conner admits, has not been heeded as much as he would like. However, this time he had proof to back up his talk. In 2017, four minor league teams participated in a multicultural marketing program tailored to their Hispanic and Latino communities called “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan,” which translates to and paralleled the sport’s “It’s Fun to be a Fan” campaign.
The initiative worked, with the teams devoting either entire homestands or multiple nights toward directly attracting Latino and Hispanic fans to the ballpark, resulting in a spike in attendance and revenue.