What's the best indicator of a Minor League team's success?
If you're employed in the front office, the answer is simple: attendance. Those who work for Minor League teams have no control of the on-field product, which is entirely the domain of the parent club. What they can control is the ballpark experience, working to create an environment that draws the fans in and keeps them coming back. (A winning team and a top prospect or two is merely a bonus.)
This article, greatly aided by David "The Number Tamer" Kronheim's annual Minor League Baseball Attendance Analysis, takes a level-by-level look at the teams with the biggest per-game attendance increases in 2018.
Triple-A: Oklahoma City Dodgers +180
6,713 average; 463,195 total
Last season was a down year for Minor League attendance overall, with much of the decline attributable to full-season clubs that were clobbered by an unseasonably cold and wet April. The Pacific Coast League affiliate of the Dodgers was one of five Triple-A teams to post a per-game attendance gain, along with the Buffalo Bisons, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express and Salt Lake Bees. The total attendance of 463,195 at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark was Oklahoma City's highest since 2015 and second-highest since 2009. Michael Byrnes, the team's president and general manager, believes that the growth was "driven by our organization's fundamentals."
"Overall, it was a testament to our sales and marketing teams for their continued focus on advance sales, as well as our entire team for continuing to provide quality family entertainment and great value to our community," he said.
Honorable Mentions: Buffalo Bisons (+149), Reno Aces (+125)
Double-A: New Hampshire Fisher Cats +330
5,065 average; 319,099 total
Prospects who move the attendance needle are a rare breed, but they do exist. The 2018 Fisher Cats, who won the Eastern League title, featured the Blue Jays' top talent and notable big league scions Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. (Guerrero lasted 61 games before getting called up to Triple-A Buffalo). The Fisher Cats' impressive on-field pedigree wasn't the only reason for their success at the gate.
"Our ownership group has invested in new areas throughout [Northeast Delta Dental Stadium], like our new Tiki bar, live music stage and tiered seating pavilion," Fisher Cats general manager Jim Flavin said. "To go along with that, our sales staff has reengaged with the local business community, and that's made a big difference. Our on-field entertainment has become a must-see event [that] keeps people coming back all year. Throw in a championship team with some of the best prospects in baseball, and it added up to a special season in 2018."
Honorable Mentions: San Antonio Missions (+328), Binghamton Rumble Ponies (+264)
Class A Advanced: Lake Elsinore Storm +177
3,071 average; 214,955 total
The Storm, perpetual California League attendance leaders, had a comparatively disappointing 2017 in which they failed to crack the 200,000 mark. But the San Diego affiliate landed back on top in 2018, posting the biggest per-game gain within the California, Carolina and Florida State Leagues.
"I believe we had the biggest gain due to the work our staff put into to the community and with their sales efforts," Storm general manager Raj Narayanan said. "Obviously, our fun promotions and interactions at the ballpark help us a lot. We didn't do anything crazy last year, but that'll change this year. The more we do in the community, the better it is. Oh, and $2 and $3 beers help, too!"
Honorable Mentions: Palm Beach Cardinals (+98), Stockton Ports (+55)
SRP Park, home of the Augusta GreenJackets, replaced Lake Olmstead Stadium last year.
Class A: Augusta GreenJackets +1307
4,050 average; 255,155 total
The Augusta GreenJackets' SRP Park was the Minors' only new stadium in 2018. Not surprisingly, the team posted the biggest attendance gain in all of Minor League Baseball. After averaging 2,743 fans per game during their final season at Lake Olmstead Stadium, the GreenJackets crossed the Savannah River (as well as state lines, from Georgia to South Carolina). It wouldn't be surprising to see Augusta experience further gains in 2019, thanks to more amenities within the ballpark and a large array of businesses springing up around it.
Honorable Mentions: West Michigan Whitecaps (+205), Lansing Lugnuts (+144)
Class A Short-Season: Brooklyn Cyclones (+139)
5,329 average; 202,495
Between 2001 and 2015, the Cyclones led all short-season teams in attendance. The Vancouver Canadians have earned that honor over the past three years, but Brooklyn is back on the rise after a strong 2018.
"I think there were a number of factors that helped us see an increase in attendance last year," said Cyclones general manager Kevin Mahoney. "The most obvious answer is that we increased our sales staff, so more people selling, thankfully, translated into more people coming to the ballpark. But I also think that the fact that our team was more successful on the field was a big factor, as well. We had a few losing seasons in a row, and the 2018 team was right in the playoff hunt up until the final day of the season. And, obviously, we had a ton of success with some of our bigger promotional nights -- that led to standing room only crowds."
Honorable Mentions: Boise Hawks (+125), Williamsport Crosscutters (+105)
Rookie Advanced: Greeneville Reds (+410)
1,529 average; 48,021 total
The Appalachian League is on the upswing, as Pulaski, Johnson City and Princeton all increased their per-game attendance by over 200. But Greeneville is leading the charge, having posted the second-largest per-game increase in all of Minor League Baseball. Part of the increase can be attributed to an affiliation switch, with the (relatively) nearby Reds taking the place of the Houston Astros. But other elements also contributed to Greeneville's recent success. Boyd Sports took over operations of the team prior to the season, leading to a rejuvenated atmosphere at Pioneer Park.
"We continue to make improvements on anything in the ballpark our hands can touch," general manager Kristen Atwell said, noting myriad food and beverage enhancements. "And we've been more involved in the community, which has a huge effect on attendance. ... We got the ball rolling, and it was a huge success. We're excited to be here."