Inside the numbers: The drawing board
If you follow the world of Minor League Baseball, then you probably know that the industry's 15 leagues and 176 teams once again combined to top the 40 million attendance threshold in 2013. Last year, 41,553,781 passed through the turnstiles, to be exact, a modest 0.7 percent increase over the 2012 campaign.
But did you know that 13 of the 14 highest attendance totals in Minor League history have occurred since 2001? And that the pre-2004 record of 39,640,443 was set in 1949 when Minor League Baseball consisted of a whopping 448 teams in 59 leagues?
These facts, and thousands upon thousands of others, can be found in David Kronheim's annual Minor League attendance report. The 2013 edition, 91 pages long and divided into 34 sections, is now available as a PDF download on Kronheim's aptly named website, numbertamer.com. This yearly missive is the most thorough of its kind, and should prove interesting to anyone seeking to get a comprehensive sense of the industry's strengths and weaknesses. It will also appeal to that thriving subgenre of baseball fans who enjoy the obsessive art of number crunching; of these there are many.
Kronheim, a self-described "freelance advertising copywriter and marketing research analyst" based in the New York City borough of Queens, has worked with a wide variety of corporate clients throughout his career. This line of work is what led him to do baseball attendance reports, albeit indirectly.
"I started doing [Major and Minor League] attendance analyses in 1999," he wrote in an email. "All of my marketing reports had confidential information on them, so I couldn't share them with prospective clients. I worked with some sponsors of both Major League and Minor League Baseball -- Foot Locker, Champs Sports -- and had been compiling a brief attendance summary for them for several years. I decided that an expanded summary would be a good sample of my work. People really like to read about baseball -- even if it's just about attendance."
Though that was the impetus, Kronheim freely admits that the reports are first and foremost a labor of love.
"I don't get paid for this, and it takes a long, long time to put together," he said. "People can use my information any way they want -- it's completely free and for the sharing. The only thing I ask is please list it as a source."
With this attitude in mind, let's take a look at some of the highlights from the 2013 report. Those seeking to peruse the entire thing -- which includes detailed league-by-league breakdowns and numerous historical comparisons -- can do so here.
Healthy in the heartland
In regard to 2013 Minor League attendance, Kronheim remarked that the "biggest thing that stood out for me was how many teams managed to overcome bad weather early in the season." Of the 174 teams that played in the same market in 2012 and 2013, a little more than half (89) experienced a decrease in total attendance. However, a little more than half (91) drew more per opening than they had the year before.
Nowhere was this trend more evident than in the Midwest League, which lost a staggering 66 dates due to weather (41 more than in 2012). However, the league's 16 teams averaged an all-time high of 3,907 fans per opening, en route to its second-highest total ever (4,118,049). Leading the Midwest League charge was the South Bend Silver Hawks, who, thanks to new ownership and a series of ballpark improvements, have increased their attendance by 111 percent over the past two seasons. Maybe the synagogue-turned-team store has something to do with it?
Class A accolades accumulate
It wasn't just the Midwest League that excelled at the Class A level in 2013, as the five full-season Class A/Class A Advanced circuits combined to average an all-time high of 2,996 per opening. The Carolina League played a strong role in this success, setting records in total (1,934,740) and per date (3,657) attendance for the second year in a row.
And then there's the Class A Short-Season Northwest League, which averaged 2,270 fans per opening. All eight teams on the circuit averaged at least 2,000 fans, the first time this ever happened at the short-season level.
If you build it…
Kronheim also pinpointed the Birmingham Barons as one of this season's biggest success stories. The Southern League franchise drew 396,820 fans to brand-new Regions Field, a gain of 192,551 over 2012 (when the Barons played their final season at the similar-in-name-only Regions Park). This was the largest increase in all of Minor League Baseball.
"People absolutely raved about [Regions Field], and the attendance showed it," he said.
The 2014 campaign will see stadium openings in the Triple-A markets of El Paso and Charlotte, and this will likely result in all 30 Triple-A teams drawing 300,000 fans or more for just the second time ever (it first occurred in 2009). The Pacific Coast League's El Paso Chihuahuas are replacing the Tucson Padres, who drew a league-low 200,077 fans in 2013. And in the International League, the Charlotte Knights are set to improve considerably upon the 254,834 they drew in their last season at old Knights Stadium. (There is a good chance that the 2014 Knights will break their franchise mark of 403,029, which as Kronheim notes, is the "lowest high" of any current International League club).
Major gains in major markets
In 1976, just four Minor League teams -- Pawtucket, Reading, Toledo and San Jose -- operated within 60 miles of a Major League market. That number has exploded over the past two decades, including a handful of independent league franchises. There are now 57 teams operating within 60 miles of a Major League club. These include perpetual league attendance leaders such as the Lakewood BlueClaws, Brooklyn Cyclones and Lehigh Valley IronPigs, but Kronheim reserves special praise for the Reading Fightin Phils and Pawtucket Red Sox. Each of these clubs plays in a decidedly aged facility but nonetheless has rebounded from lean times in the 1970s and '80s en route to eight-fold attendance increases.
"At one time, you could have bought the Reading Phillies for $1 and assumed the debt, and now they are the first Double-A team to draw 400,000 fans for 16 years in a row. … To me that's incredible, especially when there is a [Philadelphia] Phillies game on TV every day," said Kronheim. "And in Pawtucket, just 40 miles from Boston, they were pretty close to bankruptcy. Now they pack the joint every day. It's amazing."
The success of teams such as Reading and Pawtucket speaks to a larger issue, as over the past several decades, Minor League Baseball has experienced a spectacular renaissance. What was once a ramshackle collection of teams playing in dilapidated stadiums, threatened by the twin indoor allures of television and air conditioning, is now something else entirely. Affordable family-friendly fun is the name of the game, with the ballpark recast as a 360-degree entertainment mecca (often as the centerpiece in downtown redevelopment project). The end result is an experience designed to appeal to as many people as possible, from the mascot and cotton candy-obsessed kindergartner to the scorecard-keeping purist.
"I regard this as a great American success story, as an industry that was essentially dying in the '50s and '60s has slowly rebuilt itself," he said. "If you spoke to people who worked in Minor League Baseball 40 years ago and told them that it would be like this today, they'd never believe it."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.