While Major League Baseball experiences a variety of attendance issues, Minor League Baseball finished the year with an increase in attendance.
Both circumstances are more complex than they appear on the surface, but the MiLB’s 2.6% overall attendance growth shows an understanding MLB teams could learn from, said Brad Horn, professor of public relations at Syracuse University. S.I. Newhouse. School of Public Communications.
“Anytime you see a positive gain, it’s worth celebrating the continued relevance of sports,” Horn said. “The community presence continues to be strong and fans expect the novelty and uniqueness, and that’s why the Minor Leagues continue to be strong and Major League needs to work harder to get fans into the ballpark.”
It was the 15th consecutive season MiLB’s 176 teams brought more than 40 million fans through the turnstiles and the single-largest year-over-year growth since 2007. The more than 41.5 million fans were the ninth-largest single-season total in the league’s history.
“Minor League Baseball continues to set the standard for affordable family-friendly entertainment, and topping 41.5 million in attendance is only possible with the tremendous support our teams receive in each of our communities,” MiLB President and CEO Pat O’Connor said. “It is also a testament to the support of our loyal fans and the dedication of our front office staff across the country and their commitment to making Minor League Baseball the summertime designation for memory-making fun and excitement.”
Most of the teams across MiLB held fairly steady, so the growth was largely driven by a few outliers, Horn said. Most notably was the Las Vegas Aviators, a Triple-A team that entered a brand new stadium with a rebranded identity. The Aviators shattered its previous single-season attendance record and led all of MiLB with 650,934 fans, averaging 9,299 per game and hosting 43 sellouts.
The Fayetteville Woodpeckers, which also opened a new stadium, saw a 91% increase in attendance and the Rocky Mountain Vibes in Colorado Springs saw a 37% increase despite dropping down several tiers from Triple-A to Rookie League. A MiLB article details five of the top increases and notes similar gains are possible next year with four new stadiums set to open.
“The gains you’re seeing, the big gains only happen when there’s a ground-shifting event like a new ballpark, new franchise or upgraded league,” Horn said, adding a caveat about the Vibes’ massive increase. “It gave a new brand, a new team to celebrate.
“The rest of the gains or losses are marginal,” he said.
With the rest of MiLB maintaining relatively stable numbers, Horn reemphasized the community connections the teams seem to have with their hometowns. A specific example was that of the Syracuse Mets, which welcomed the organization’s first-year Triple-A affiliation with the New York Mets – the affiliation had been in Las Vegas – showing regional ties continue to perform well.
The Syracuse Mets saw a large jump in attendance, more than 50,000 people, that the team’s general manager Jason Smorol attributes to the new affiliation. He said people came from all over New York, and even Ontario, to check in on the Mets farm system. With the Mets connection, Smorol believes this year’s attendance to be the new normal, so the focus will be to drive even better promotions and customer service.
“The Mets brand, the Mets effect is the real deal,” Smorol said. “The past six years we had been doing things differently, what all the other Minor League teams do, aiming to be the affordable family fun destination. We have great days, great promotions and great value, and add on top of that the buzz of the Mets, some luck with the weather and Tim Tebow.”
MLB is set to have its fourth consecutive attendance decline, though revenue likely will increase. A positive note, detailed in a FOS story earlier this summer is 15 teams are set to experience increases but are offset by poor performance from struggling teams on the field.
For the most part, Horn said poor-performing MLB attendance outliers are directly correlated to record. There are, however, several teams inexplicably down despite strong records, such as the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals.
“The Majors, you see the records matter more,” Horn said. “For those teams that are excelling on the field and seeing a decrease, it speaks to the need to adapt the ballpark experience.”
With 176 teams, there’s plenty of flexibility for MiLB to see variations in numbers and growth outliers as organizations move, rebrand and open new stadiums. The challenge lies within the struggle of not being able to rebrand or open a new stadium every five years when attendance begins to stagnate or decline, Horn said.
Overall, though, the lower level teams seem to understand their fanbase. Horn pointed toward special promotion nights like the Hispanic fan engagement initiative Copa de la Diversion, which included 403 games across the country drawing 20% larger crowds than average. Likewise, the MiLB Pride initiatives 71 events drew 12% larger than average crowds.
“Minor League Baseball seems to have a much stronger plus on community engagement, based on the ability to have huge single-game variation spikes with promotions,” said Horn, noting MLB teams are seeing drops on typically large promotional nights. “They’re thinking innovatively about experiential activations.”