Friday, September 13, 2013

Glancing at Hagerstown's attendance and the Suns future

Ballpark Digest released the attendance for all affiliated teams in minor league baseball and seeing this release made me think of a few things that relate to both the Hagerstown Suns and their owner Bruce Quinn's potential move to Fredericksburg,Virginia.

Hagerstown's Suns finished 160th of 176 affiliated teams and just five full season teams had worse attendance than the Suns (Burlington,Jupiter,Palm Beach,Beloit and Bakersfield).
These totals are based on average attendance and Hagerstown's total of an average of 1,058 not only ranked last in the SAL,but was far surpassed by teams with half of the home dates.

This is brought to my attention by the "promised help" of Bruce Quinn to give Hagerstown a New York/Penn league franchise and comparing the numbers to the Suns attendance.
Only one team in that league had a lower average attendance number than Hagerstown,ironically the one team in the league that could be considered a possible target for Hagerstown-Batavia NY,who averaged 969 fans in 35 home dates.

One thing that the New York/Penn does offer is have northern cities that would do miserably in April and May and offer them prime weather dates that the average person will take in a ball game in.
One example is Erie PA,who does roughly the same attendance numbers in full season as they did when they were in the NY/Penn league.
Could Hagerstown prosper in a league that allows for better weather,but fewer home dates?
Only in a new stadium as this years numbers did not appreciably increase in a large jump over the summer months,so that theory looks like a flawed one as long as the teams home is still Municipal Stadium.

The damage to done to this town,which has always been "A baseball town" by three ownership groups,multiple city councils/county commissioner boards,several management changes and numerous cries for a new facility have been devastating to the brand.
The name Hagerstown Suns and anyone associated with that name has become poison here through the long years of issues too many to take the time to write this morning.
I am not sure that even a new stadium would in itself be a panacea for the problems for baseball here.
It might take a new stadium,new ownership and perhaps even a new team name to overcome the twenty plus years of damage to this market that has been done.
I think it is very doable under those circumstances because the community is still a baseball friendly town,but just doing any one or even two of those possible fixes might not be enough to clean up this mess..

Could the team market better? Most definately,but one cannot drink champagne with the budget made for Dr.Perky,can you?
There are plenty of things that could boost attendance here,but nothing is going to help until the fan base (and casual fan) knows these results for certain-Will there be a team here beyond 2014? If so,at what level? And if so,where will this team play?
Until those questions are answered,no amount of marketing,promotions etc will have people invest in a franchise that is seemingly ready to leave town.
A small point is this-we live in an area where people over 40 remember the Baltimore Colts leaving town under the cloud of night and those people are more sensitive than most to threats to leave town.
In other words,they know what its like to have their hearts ripped out and they simply are not going to put themselves,children and even grandchildren in that situation of giving their support and money to a team to take it all away.
An attendance of a hair over 1,000 people a night (and we know the number actually there is safely far less than that) is a weak number,but that might look a ton better next year with the uncertainty surrounding the franchise.
This years attendance just might look sterling silver compared to what might be on tap next year.

But Bruce Quinn is not quite off the hook yet.
Art Silber and his Potomac Nationals reported an all time high in attendance for 2013 for a team that was the powerhouse of the Carolina League,winning both the first and second halves in their division,
Potomac drew 236,772 in total attendance,averaging a bit over 3,500 and finished 88th in all of minor league baseball in average.
This total put Potomac fourth in the eight team Carolina League and as I wrote,an all time record for a 36 year old franchise.
Why do I mention Potomac?
Well,it is 35 miles from Fredericksburg and the possible future home for Bruce Quinn's SAL team that currently resides in Hagerstown.

One number that has appeared consistently from Quinn and Fredericksburg is an expected average attendance of 4.100 to 4,600 fans for a low A ballclub.
I think this number is unrealistic for two reasons.
The first is the hooking so much of the hopes on traveling baseball and softball clubs for tournaments.
Will they have good crowds for these tournaments? Likely on summer weekends and the odd other day,but they will not have these crowds when kids are in school other than weekends and I would guess that not all people there for tourneys are going to want to spend downtime at yet another baseball game.
Some? Yes. Most? I think that is a bit dubious.
That is the main draw for the attendance numbers that are being estimated.

The other reason?
Too much competition.
35 miles from a High A team (Potomac),50 miles from a AA team (Richmond) 52 miles from Independent baseball (Southern Maryland) and 55 miles from the biggest dog of all-the Washington Nationals.
That is a lot of baseball within a 55 mile radius and with each of those teams taking a chunk of the radius,the actual territory that will be Fredericksburg fans is smaller than Quinn thinks.
Those fans might go to the odd game,but they are unlikely to leave their loyalty to the current team or travel in the legendary traffic in the Virginia suburbs more than a few times.

Which brings us back to Potomac and their all time high in attendance.
An attendance that is 600 fans a night LESS than the low end of the Fredericksburg projected number.
Considering the city of Fredericksburg is smaller than Hagerstown (for now,Fredericksburg is growing quickly),the county is roughly the same population as Washington County and the amount of that population that may continue to support other teams,does this seem like a less than realistic result for a team in Fredericksburg?

I believe so,not that Hagerstown has itself together in any way,but I do believe that both sides will regret this deal.
Hagerstown in losing full season baseball and Fredericksburg in not quite getting what they believe they are.
Just something to mull over as this continues to develop.


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