I love baseball but hate hype; and it is a combination of these two things that will put a few hundred fresh words on the blog tonight.
My local Lehigh Valley IronPigs, with whom I have something of a love-hate relationship, put out a news release Tuesday announcing what seemed to be a remarkable achievement: “IronPigs Remain Attendance Leader Since 2008.”
The news release announced that the Pigs had topped 600,000 fans for the eighth straight year — each year of the team’s existence, in other words — and that the Pigs “remain Minor League Baseball’s per game attendance leader since their debut season.”
In other words, the team has sold more tickets per game on average than any other minor-league team over the past eight years. They’re averaging just over 9,000 tickets sold per game over that span. (I have been to enough games and seen enough empty seats to be convinced that “attendance” really means “tickets sold,” not “fans through the gate.”)
After reviewing the International League’s official attendance data for the past eight years, I decided the Pigs’ spin was a nice way to camouflage the fact that the team’s per-game attendance had a down year.
The second-worst year in team history, to be precise:
The Pigs like to boast about their per-game attendance, but they haven’t led the International League in this department since 2012. In the year just past, they fell all the way to fourth, with 8,769 fans per game — trailing Charlotte (9,428), Indianapolis (9,331) and Columbus (9,016).
In other words, that “per game attendance leader” business seems to rely a whole lot on that hot streak from 2009 through 2012.
(I am powerless to explain their weak showing in their very first year, which marked the return of affiliated baseball to the Valley after a four-decade absence. I would have thought they were above 9,000 a game that year too. Guess not. Perhaps the dreadful opening to their season — 13 straight losses, if memory serves — tempered the Valley’s interest.)
There are all kinds of yeah-buts, in-defense-ofs, and caveats to be made about the Pigs’ attendance this year; and I’ll throw in as many as I can think of:
- Fourth in a 14-team league ain’t bad. Certainly, the Gwinnett Braves and Syracuse Chiefs — both averaging around 3,800 tickets sold per game — dream of support like that.
- By my rough math, the International League average for fans per game was 7,130 this past season, so the Pigs remain well above average.
- Coca-Cola Park only has 8,089 fixed seats, so the Pigs continue to admit more arses than they have seats for. This is not quite as remarkable as it sounds: Pretty much every Triple-A park of the past dozen years has a general-admission outfield berm that can hold 2,000 fans or so. Still, if they’re selling 8,769 tickets per game, that’s every seat in the park plus maybe one-third of the berm, which is pretty impressive.
- The Pigs are stomping their Pennsylvania rivals, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, who averaged 5,753 fans per game last year despite completely revamping their ballpark just two or three years ago.
- The Pigs’ on-field performance has been so-so to downright lousy. They went 63-81 this past season, the second-worst record in the IL, and have finished above .500 only twice in eight years. Their performance at the gate is a tribute to management’s promotional ingenuity … ’cause all those people aren’t coming to watch well-played baseball.
- I’m not focusing on total year-end attendance here, because the Pigs picked per-game to be their measure of choice, but 600,000 fans a year at the Triple-A level is nothing to sneeze at.
- Finally: You can’t read anything conclusive into one relatively slow year.
Yeah, this past year was a good one by many attendance measures, and it wouldn’t have looked bad at all if the team hadn’t concocted questionable ways to crow about it.
Still, seeing the gradual downturn in per-game attendance, I wonder whether the Valley is starting to cool on the IronPigs … and if so, where the attendance levels will eventually stabilize.
Will we dip to around 7,000 to 7,500 and hold there, like longtime International League markets Toledo and Pawtucket have done in the past few years? (Pawtucket was pulling 9,200 per game a decade ago and 8,300 five years ago.)
Farther down to 6,000 to 6,500 per game, like Rochester, another defining International League market? All the way south of 4,000, like Syracuse, also not a fly-by-night market?
Or, who knows? Maybe the Pigs’ front office will find the magic promotional formula to bring attendance back to 9,000 per game. Maybe they’ll hit on just the right tap-dance to keep all eyes fixed on them. They’ve been pretty good at that so far.
My preference, for what it’s worth, would be for the Pigs to settle in at a level where they are well-supported, comfortably profitable … and free of spun-up claims about their attendance performance.