Dave Echols recalls watching teenagers roam around Riley Park who are now grown and bring their own families to Charleston RiverDogs games.
It’s been one of the best parts of his 15-plus years working with the New York Yankees' minor league affiliate.
“Each community that houses a minor league park gets that same experience, and it’s up to us to make it a special occasion for the fans,” said Echols, the president and general manager of the RiverDogs.
The results reflect that philosophy. Charleston’s attendance reached more than 300,000 for the first time in team history in 2017, and the team reached that mark again this season.
The attendance growth isn't limited to Charleston or even the South Atlantic League. Over the years, there has been a steady climb in minor league attendance across the country. At the same time, attendance for Major League Baseball has been on the decline.
Rain can’t stop the reign
Minor League Baseball (MiLB) reported a year ago that 14 of its 176 teams broke fan attendance records in 2017. Three of those teams reside in South Carolina and are part of the South Atlantic League — Charleston RiverDogs, Columbia Fireflies (New York Mets), and Greenville Drive (Boston Red Sox).
The Augusta GreenJackets (San Francisco Giants), another SAL team, also set an attendance mark in 2017, and broke that record this season in its first year at SRP Park in North Augusta.
Overall, more than 41.8 million fans flocked to minor league parks in 2017. The numbers for 2018 haven’t been released yet, but slight decreases are expected due to an unprecedented amount of rainouts this year.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jeff Lantz, a spokesperson from the MiLB office. “But even with the numbers dipping, we can see that many clubs would have done better than last year if not for the rainouts.”
John Katz, the president of the Fireflies, says the numbers are humbling, but not surprising. Ever since the Columbia team moved from Savannah in 2016, Katz said attendance has been amazing.
The team peaked in 2017 with 315,034 fans. That was largely thanks to Tim Tebow, who signed a deal before the season with the Mets. The former NFL quarterback, who won two national titles and a Heisman Trophy at Florida, played 64 games with the Fireflies before his promotion to Class-Advanced ball.
This past season, Columbia’s attendance dropped to 251,586. That’s closer to the 261,134 fans they saw in their first year at Spirit Communications Park. And once the multiple rainouts and bad weather are factored in, it’s safe to say the Fireflies would have eclipsed that 2016 mark.
“We didn’t want to get comfortable after the Tebow effect, so we took this season as a challenge to keep engaging our fans,” Katz said.
A different product
As minor league attendance trends in the right direction, Major League Baseball is seeing the opposite occur.
Yahoo Sports reported last month that barring an exponential jump in September, MLB will fail to reach the 70-million mark for the first time since 2003.
“I think the main thing is, we’re selling a different product,” Katz explained. “The attraction for a Major League Baseball game is the players. But for us, we’re offering promotions that even non-baseball fans can enjoy.”
The MiLB front office has taken notice. Lantz said it’s encouraging to see teams take a universal approach, such as the RiverDogs with promotions like Star Wars night.
Echols said the RiverDogs like to balance those commercial promotions with ones specific to Charleston and the team brand.
From allowing fans to bring their pet dogs to Riley Park, to encouraging funny home video submissions, ideas are never at a standstill.
“We’re not taking a major league sport and cramming it into a market,” Echols explained. We’re embracing the sport of baseball in our market and applying it to our community.”
It appears to be working, as work has already started on setting a new record in 2019.