Among the truths commonly accepted in the world of Minor League Baseball is that it's tough to draw a crowd in the Florida State League
. The numbers bear that out -- the league's 12 clubs drew 1,296,692 fans in 2011, the lowest full-season total in the Minors.
But why? I've been touring Florida State ballparks this week and have posed that question to team personnel at each stop. The following represents my best attempt to provide a succinct answer to one of the Minors' most pressing questions:
- Opening Day letdown: After the big-name razzle-dazzle of Spring Training, watching mostly unknown Minor Leaguers in the same ballparks is a bit anticlimactic.
- The weather: Throughout the summer, torrential downpours in the early evening are par for the course. Who wants to go to a ballgame that very well may be delayed or postponed?
- The weather, part two: April and May might be tolerable enough, but Florida in the summer months can be just plain brutal. Many of the league's ballparks are quite nice, but none of them have air conditioning.
- The population: Floridians are more transient than the rest of the country, with many so-called "snowbirds" only living in the state during the winter. The sporting allegiances of these fans (and, by extension, their discretionary dollars) are directed toward the teams they rooted for while growing up.
- The competition: Beaches, amusement parks, waterfront shopping areas and other tourism meccas abound in (or near) Florida State League markets. Minor League Baseball can get lost in the shuffle.
The above factors needn't result in a defeatist approach at the turnstiles, however. Over the weekend I saw games in Clearwater, Fort Myers and Port Charlotte, and each market provided examples of how teams can survive -- and often thrive -- even on this most challenging of baseball circuits.
(2,566 fans a game in 2011, first in the league)
The Threshers have been the league's top performing franchise since 2004, when they moved from Jack Russell Stadium to Bright House Field. The change of venue inspired an identity overhaul, with the affiliate-referencing "Phillies" becoming the "Threshers" (a breed of shark). The beautiful stadium -- sporting the now-standard 360-degree concourse -- drew in many new fans, and the new logo transformed the once-anonymous franchise into one of the industry's most distinct entities.
The Threshers have maintained their dominance with a consistent approach that keeps the focus on Bright House Field as a care-free vacation getaway. Frenchy's Tiki Bar, located in left field, is a thatched-roof oasis of affordable alcoholic beverages that has become the team's most recognizable feature. Fans congregate here well before (and after) ballgames, and for many the ballgame itself is an afterthought. Friday's game, which I attended, was the annual tradition that is '70s Night (with front-office employees dressed in clothes from the era, as well as a surprising number of fans). The crowd was sparse when the ballgame started, but GM John Timberlake was unconcerned.
"We'll have people trickling in all night," he said. "Some of them will be here just for Disco Inferno."
And indeed they did. Disco Inferno -- Florida's self-proclaimed "Number One Disco Band" -- set up shop facing the Tiki Bar and played two raucous postgame sets of Me Decade hits in front of an enthusiastic (and well-lubricated) crowd. It was just a night in the life of the Threshers, one that amply illustrated the good-times culture propagated by the staff and embraced by the fans.
Charlotte Stone Crabs
(2,483 fans a game, second in the league)
The Stone Crabs, like the Threshers, certainly benefit from playing in one of the league's nicer facilities -- Charlotte Sports Park. Opened in 1987 as the Spring Training home of the Rangers, it underwent extensive renovations prior to the 2009 campaign, when the Tampa Bay Rays became its new tenant. The Stone Crabs, the Rays' Class A Advanced affiliate, debuted that season as well after relocating from Vero Beach.
Jim Pfander is in his first season at the helm (he spent 2011 in Akron, preceded by a long stint with perennial innovators the Charleston RiverDogs), and he said that right now "the focus is on the weekends, and we'll build from there." But even on the relatively sleepy Sunday evening on which I attended, there was a lot going on. A pregame Kids Club promotion resulted in the "only in Minor League Baseball" sight of Stone Crabs closer Chris Rearick reading to a small group of children atop the dugout, and this soon transitioned into a Splash Day spectacle. Staff members wandered the concourse in swimming attire shooting Super Soakers, while kids soaked themselves on an inflatable water slide. More subdued goings-on were in right field, where season ticket holders were helping themselves to an Asian-themed dinner in the Hit and Run Club. Such dinners are an "add-on" to the season ticket packages, Pfander explained, with the goal of motivating ticket-holders to attend as many games as possible.
"They've bought their tickets, which is great, but we want to make sure that they actually use them," he explained.
Fort Myers Miracle
(1,911 fans a game, fourth in the league)
The Fort Myers Miracle have attempted to raise Thomas Edison from the dead, given away seat cushions to commemorate the Titanic and received a cease-and-desist letter from the University of Florida after a "WWTTD" promotion in honor of Tim Tebow. They'll do just about anything to generate some attention, in other words -- no idea is too ridiculous.
The latest example of this anything-goes approach was on full display when I visited Saturday evening: "Can You Throw Harder Than Jamie Moyer?"
$1 buys three attempts at the speed pitch, and fans who can top the ageless lefty's 78 mph fastball on the radar gun receive free tickets to an upcoming game. It's a very simple concept and costs virtually nothing -- a few flyers featuring Moyer can be seen around the stadium (in which he taunts "Can you throw harder than me?",) and promotion beyond that was limited to Twitter and Facebook. But that's all it took. Yahoo, Fox Sports and USA Today all ran articles on the promo, and on the night I attended MLB.com's Adam Berry was in town to write about it as well. (Berry, like the 160 delusional souls who came before him that week, was unable to top Moyer).
"Guys just keep throwing and throwing and throwing," said Miracle director of promotions Gary Sharp. "One guy spent $50 as his friends stood there and cheered him on."