Another year, another record.
For the fifth straight season, Minor League Baseball has established a new all-time attendance record. During the recently concluded 2008 regular season, the industry's 176 clubs combined to draw 43,263,740 fans. This was a 1.1 percent increase over 2007, and marked the first time ever that attendance had surpassed the 43-million mark.
"Given the obstacles we faced this year with the economy, devastating floods and late season hurricanes, the 2008 attendance number achieved by our teams is further proof of baseball's renaissance and place in the fabric and fiber that is America," said Minor League Baseball President Pat O'Connor.
The Midwest, Pioneer, Texas, and International Leagues all posted record attendance this season, with the latter two circuits achieving especially significant milestones. The eight-team Texas League topped the three-million mark for the first time, while the 14-club International League drew over seven million fans.
Key to the IL's success was the addition of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who drew 602,033 fans in their inaugural season. This marked a 368-percent increase from 2007, when the franchise played as the Ottawa Lynx.
"For us to exceed the half-million mark and get to 600,000 exceeded both personal and team expectations," said IronPigs General Manager Kurt Landes. "We averaged 8,500 people a game in a ballpark that seats 8,100, and gained more and more momentum as the season went on. The Allentown area has had some bad experiences with professional baseball in the past, so a lot of people had an attitude with us like 'I'll believe it when I see it.' But when people came into [Coca-Cola Park] for the first time, they were blown away by how nice it was."
Despite the fact that teams traditionally dip in attendance after playing their first season in a new location, Landes sees no reason why the IronPigs can't improve on their total in 2009.
"Many people weren't able to get reserved seats this year, so I think we're going to see a lot more pre-purchasing," he said. "And last year we had to put so much effort just into getting the ballpark ready. Now, we can focus on our marketing and work on improving both individual and group sales."
The Texas League was also bolstered by a new market this season. The Northwest Arkansas Naturals drew 358,792 fans, a 216-percent increase over what the franchise drew while based in Wichita in 2007.
The Naturals were the biggest story in what was a remarkable season for the entire league. All eight Texas League franchises experienced increased attendance from the previous year, marking the first time that this has occurred in the 100 plus years of the circuit's history. Six of these clubs topped the 300,000 plateau, which was also a first.
"I don't think [the increase] was the result of any one factor," said Texas League President Tom Kayser. "This is just a league that is full of outstanding operators, and we've had an awful lot of new stadiums open in recent seasons. There are more and more fans in the markets that we've been in, and we've expanded to new markets as well. This was the culmination of a lot of hard work."
The biggest attendance increase by a franchise that did not re-locate to a new market was achieved by the revamped Quad Cities River Bandits, who bested their 2007 total by 39 percent. Under the direction of new team president Dave Heller and GM Kirk Goodman, the club changed its name and logo and instituted a wide array of improvements to the game day atmosphere at Modern Woodmen Park.
Other clubs that surpassed their 2007 totals by at least 10 percent included the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (24%), Billings Mustangs (19%), Staten Island Yankees (16%), Savannah Sand Gnats (15%), Augusta GreenJackets (13%), Kingsport Mets (13%), Myrtle Beach Pelicans (13%), Casper Rockies (12%), Daytona Cubs (12%), Sarasota Reds (12%), and Colorado Springs Sky Sox (10%).
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.