Tebow, Goats Lead To Minor League Attendance Rise
It's not a surprise that Tim Tebow's presence boosted attendance everywhere he went in 2017. Teams across the South Atlantic and Florida State Leagues saw massive increases for games when the former football star was in town. The St. Lucie Mets, for whom Tebow played in the second half of the season, saw a 37.1 percent increase from their 2016 attendance (96,556) to their 2017 figure (132,359). With Tebow in tow, Minor League Baseball finished the season with 37,789,759 fans, an overall jump of 444,604 fans (1.2 percent) from 2016.
But it wasn't all Tebow. Plenty of teams saw jumps in attendance without playing in the SAL or FSL. The Hartford Yard Goats got the biggest bump, obviously, by drawing 850 percent more fans than last year. How'd they do it? Easy. They actually had a stadium in 2017. That's as opposed to 2016, when the team roamed the Eastern League while the boondoggle involving the construction of Dunkin' Donuts Park played out on the construction site and in the courts.
With that resolved, Hartford drew 395,156 to DDP this year, good for third in the Eastern League behind Reading and Richmond, the circuit's traditional top finishers, after drawing just 41,569 to its road parade in 2016. When added together, the FSL and SAL's Tebow bumps of 130,726 fans and Hartford's extra 353,627 easily account for MiLB's rise in attendance between 2016 and 2017.
After they received Tebow on June 28, St. Lucie played road series against seven teams: Charlotte, Clearwater, Florida, Fort Myers, Jupiter, Palm Beach and Tampa. Of those seven teams, four (Charlotte, Fort Myers, Florida and Tampa) set season home attendance highs on days Tebow was in town. The 9.8 percent attendance bump the FSL got (1,160,428 fans in 2017 compared to 1,056,800 last year) can be tied almost exclusively to Tebow.
The South Atlantic League, too, saw a bump, but it wasn't nearly as significant. The SAL drew 0.9 percent more fans than last year (3,073,435 fans in 2017 compared to 3,046,337 in 2016) can also be tied to Tebow. That's a difference of just 27,098 fans, which can be almost entirely comprised of of the 22,578 fans Hagerstown (which averaged just 1,080 fans per game) drew for its four-game series with Tebow and the Fireflies in May.
That particular series also helped give Hagerstown the boost it needed to finish outside of last place for the first time since 2010. As mentioned, the Suns drew 22,578 fans for their Tebow series. The margin between them and Kannapolis for last place in SAL attendance was just 15,069 fans. Kannapolis didn't have the benefit of getting a series with Columbia before Tebow was promoted to the FSL.
Similarly, after moving back from Henley Field while Joker Marchant was being renovated, the Lakeland Flying Tigers saw a 156 percent increase from 2016. They drew 52,191 fans this year—and got to host the all-star game—as compared to 20,387 last year. On the other end of that spectrum, the franchise formerly known as the Bakersfield Blaze suffered the biggest attendance percentage drop this past season. In their final season in the California League, the Blaze drew 62,922 to Sam Lynn Ballpark. This year, in their first of two seasons as the Buies Creek Astros, the team welcomed 30,518 to Campbell University's cozy Jim Perry Stadium.
The second-biggest percentage decrease in attendance came from another team that moved for 2017. The Brevard County Manatees moved from Space Coast Stadium to Kissimmee, Fla., changed affiliations from the Brewers to the Braves, and moved into Osceola County Stadium as the Florida Fire Frogs. The result? A drop of 27,708 fans (from 85,032 to 57,324) and a 32.6 percent decrease. That's also in part because of the rain, which cost the Fire Frogs a staggering 17 home dates this year. Using their average 1,308 fans a game, the weather was responsible for the team missing out on 22,236 fans.
The biggest winner unaffected by Tebow this year? That would be the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, one of a spate of rebrands for 2017 (but the only one done without a fan vote to determine the name), which drew 65,450 more fans to the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville than in 2016. That 25.1 percent increase represents the seventh-best in the minors (among full-season teams) and first among teams that could not have been affected by Tebow or a stadium change.
Ken Babby, the owner of the Jacksonville franchise since before the 2015 season, also oversaw the rebranding of the Akron Aeros into the Akron RubberDucks before the 2014 season. In their first season as the RubberDucks, the team saw an 18.7 percent increase in attendance. There were some similarities between the rebrands, Babby said, but they certainly weren't identical.
"The rebranding process in Akron was different—every community is different. You would never come into Jacksonville and try to operate it like we do in Jacksonville, but there are some core principles in terms of listening to what our fans want and presenting it every night in an experience that is fun for families and affordable with something for everyone," Babby said. "In both communities we've put in picnic areas like our tiki terrace (in Jacksonville) and built great fan experiences with exceptional food yet found ways to keep the costs very affordable. There are similar elements that you'd find if you walked into both ballparks, but really each community is different and we recognized the uniqueness of both markets."
The Daytona Tortugas were also a big winner at the gate this year. Without the benefit of a Tim Tebow home game, the Tortugas saw a 21.6 percent increase in attendance from their 2016 figure, even with one more rainout on this year's ledger. Part of that uptick can most certainly be linked to the addition of Ryan Keur, the former Burlington Royals general manager who joined Daytona this offseason after winning three consecutive Appy League executive of the year awards.
The Tortugas' year included some killer promotions, including Jackie Robinson Night, where every player wore No 9, which Robinson wore when he first broke into the minor leagues; or Bob Ross Night, which included a bobblehead and a painting class; and Sager Strong Night, which included wacky jerseys and an appearance from Vince Carter. But that's only three nights. Part of Keur's mission this year included making sure fans had a reason to come to the ballpark every night.
"From the moment I got down here, it was really about engraving ourself within the community. I think we had some really innovative promotions that gained attention and steam throughout the year," Keur said. "We looked at the calendar and said 'We've got to give people a reason to come to the ballpark all 70 nights. It's not just a Saturday fireworks night, but 70 nights of the year. We've got to give people a reason to come to the ballpark.
"And I think that was one of our biggest successes this year, just how consistent we were. From a Sunday to a Tuesday to a Saturday, we were really consistent in the way that we were attracting fans. We didn't throw up a ton of duds where it was a just a really sparse crowd. The energy and atmosphere was there every single night, which was really exciting and a testament to our staff and how we approached it this year."
The Johnson City Cardinals continued their rising attendance trend, drawing 25.7 percent more fans than last year to TVA Credit Union Ballpark. Part of that rise can be attributed to four straight years of selling beer after being a dry stadium for the rest of its history.
"I think this whole area in Johnson City and really the downtown area where our ballpark is located has changed dramatically since my first year when I got here in 2014," Johnson City general manager Tyler Parsons said. "You see a bunch of growth here. The foot traffic's completely changed. We've got a lot more recreation opportunities out here around the stadium, and it all ties in with our stadium. You can plan an entire day around a baseball game."
From the Department of Remarkable Consistency, five teams managed to stay within single digits of their average attendance from 2016: The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (up two fans per game), Pensacola Blue Wahoos (up one), Kingsport Mets (down two), Oklahoma City Dodgers (down three) and Batavia Muckdogs (down five). The Northwest League also managed to keep the same order in terms of total attendance for the second straight season.