Minor League Baseball is a business built upon the simple act of getting people to the ballpark. A packed grandstand equals a vibrant gameday atmosphere, and even more importantly, a robust bottom line.
But how much is too much? At what point does a large crowd actually hinder the fan experience, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and exasperation instead of one of communal joy?
That's a "first world" Minor League problem if there ever was one, but a problem nonetheless. And last week the Lakewood BlueClaws brought it into the open with the announcement that, starting this season, attendance at FirstEnergy Park would no longer exceed 8,000.
This announcement was surprising, especially in that it was far from some theoretical "what if" exercise. The BlueClaws, who are located on the Jersey Shore and market themselves to both locals and summertime beach-goers, have exceeded 8,000 fans as many as 18 times in a season (often on Friday Fireworks nights). A Ryan Howard rehab appearance in 2010 drew 10,032 to the ballpark, and the largest crowd in franchise history was a whopping 13,003.
In the press release announcing the attendance cap, the team noted that their goals include "limiting the longer lines at the concession stands and bathrooms that occur at the largest crowd games as well as creating additional room on the concourse on the busiest of nights."
Reached by phone Tuesday, Lakewood general manager Geoff Brown elaborated on the factors that led to this unorthodox announcement.
"Over the course of the last couple of years, we realized that crowds of nine or 10 thousand might be a little too crowded," said Brown, who has served as the BlueClaws GM since 1999. "So we conducted some focus groups with our fans -- season ticket holders, mini-plan holders and those who go to only one or two games a year -- and in speaking with them, reached the conclusion that some of our games had gotten a hair too crowded."
That doesn't mean that the fans were unanimous in their opinions. The BlueClaws are one of Minor League Baseball's most proactive teams when it comes to social media, and, after making the announcement, the team was flooded with feedback from Twitter followers and Facebook fans. (Interestingly, the sentiment from the former was uniformly positive while the latter was far more varied.)
Brown concedes some fans will have to "adjust their thinking," and plan ahead to a greater extent than they have been used to.
"In almost every case, if a fan calls in at noon that day they'll be able to buy tickets. It's just a matter of having to show a little more anticipation, and a little more planning," he said. "Many of these fans are calling us anyway, asking 'What time do the gates open? What time is the game? Is there a promo?' If they're doing that, we'd ask that they buy the tickets right there on the phone."
The BlueClaws are convinced that the attendance cap will be a boon to the ballpark experience, with the potential inconvenience to indecisive fans outweighed by better parking options, shorter concession lines and a less crowded concourse area. And it is Brown's belief that lost revenue as a result of the cap will be negligible, as fans who are unable to get tickets to a particular game will simply make plans to attend another one instead.
One thing's for certain: The events of Aug. 26, 2002, will never be repeated. On that day, 13,003 fans streamed into FirstEnergy Park, a mammoth crowd that was the result of several factors: the last week of the season, beautiful weather, the culmination of several season-long promos and first-round phenom Gavin Floyd on the mound in his first start after hurling a no-hitter. The resulting scene was a zoo, in which parking became scarce and room to move once inside even scarcer.
"After that day, we swore we'd never have a crowd that large again. We flat-out aggravated people," said Brown. "Disaster might be too strong a word for it, but maybe not. I had conversations with fans that night where, afterwards, it was like, 'I know we just lost that guy [as a fan] forever.'"
FirstEnergy Park only has 6,588 fixed seats. The reason that the BlueClaws have so much leeway when it comes to defining what constitutes a "sellout" is because the stadium has plenty of extra room in the form of lawn seating, party decks and standing room spots on the concourse. Those who want to ensure themselves of an actual seat are advised to act in advance.
This strategy is also employed by their fellow Philadelphia affiliates, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, an International League attendance juggernaut who have drawn more than 600,000 fans in each of their four seasons of existence. The team's Coca-Cola Park has 8,100 fixed seats, with the rest of its Triple-A minimum 10,000 capacity accounted for by lawn seating, multi-tiered drink rails and a brand-new "Tiki Terrace."
"We stop at 10,000, and we're comfortable with that number. Last year, that was a number we probably reached 20 times," said IronPigs general manager Kurt Landes. "We hate to turn down fans who want to purchase tickets and lose that revenue. But that's why we encourage fans to purchase tickets in advance, because for those 10,000 people inside we don't want to hurt the experience."
Advance purchases have proven to be a great boon, as they help to protect the club from uncontrollable variables, such as the weather, that can often greatly diminish walk-up sales.
"If you want to make sure that you'll have a seat, then purchase in advance," said Landes. "But usually you can buy at the last minute and still get in. There are different ways to enjoy the game and be part of the action."
The IronPigs' strategy is clearly working for them, but maintaining such a position over the long term is a bit of a tightrope act between supply and demand. Fans need to be aware of the need for advance purchases, while feeling like they can also make spontaneous gameday decisions and still gain admission to the ballpark.
The Lowell Spinners have struggled with just such a balancing act in recent years, thanks to a much-vaunted sellout streak that ended in 2010 after 413 games. Though the streak itself was commendable, it has led to some unfortunate consequences.
"People got to feeling that they couldn't get tickets, so they weren't even going to try. That's something that has come back to haunt us. There's still this perception that you can't get tickets," said Spinners general manager Tim Bawmann. "Now we're very careful to say that we're not sold out, instead promoting as 'standing room only.' It's a fine line."
Streak or no streak, the Spinners are assured of drawing capacity crowds to LeLacheur Park at various points throughout the season. Through experience, Bawmann and his staff have learned to determine when enough is enough.
"You just have to be cautious and have all your antennas up," he said. "We only have so many bathrooms, we only have so many concession points of sale. It's a disservice to our product when there are too many people at the stadium."
And when there are big crowds, teams employ their own methods to help ensure that the evening runs as smoothly as possible. On occasion, Landes has freed up parking space by opening up the employee lot to paying customers. (A shuttle bus is then utilized to bring staffers to the stadium from an offsite parking area.) And he also adjusts various team policies according to attendance expectations.
"We open the gates early [when large crowds are expected]. This keeps the food lines down, more easily distributes the flow of fans and also helps with the flow of cars," he said. "All of these things get better with time and experience, and we can always change our approach."
And through it all, teams such as the BlueClaws, IronPigs and Spinners try to maintain the proper perspective.
"This is a great problem to have," said Bawmann of managing large crowds and the expectations that come with them. "I'd much rather be dealing with this than with the other side of the problem."