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Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2009

Minor leagues could defy economic woes

February 22, 2009

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It is rare today to find any business with even so much as a spark of optimism. Our bankers, carmakers, retailers, and real estate agents are especially dour.

As the co-owner of a Class A baseball team in South Carolina, however, I can tell you that Minor League Baseball is a notable exception.

The industry’s 15 leagues and 176 clubs attracted 43.2 million fans last year, and Minor League Baseball set an all-time regular-season attendance record for the sixth consecutive year. More big and noisy crowds are on the way this summer — many in ownership even see the possibility of another record year.

One reason for the optimism is the troubled economy, which is leaving relatively few viable family entertainment options. Most families can still afford a night at the ballpark, with reasonably priced tickets, special games and giveaways for youngsters, ballpark food and beverage, and exciting professional baseball.

Last year, those attractions allowed the attendance record to be broken again despite a dwindling economy, devastating floods and late-season hurricanes.

According to Pat O’Conner, president of Minor League Baseball, the 2008 figure was “further proof of baseball’s renaissance and place in the fabric and fiber that is America.” Minor league clubs have made unprecedented efforts to hold prices down for the new season, most refusing to increase charges for general admission tickets. Walk-in traffic is an essential to the minors.

The attendance mark was a remarkable achievement, but the men and women at the club level have a record of keeping focus on who their customers are and what they enjoy, and they work overtime to attract parents and youngsters with non-stop fun at the ballpark. New and different skits between innings are legendary, and frequently part of a night at the game.

Without question, the minors have done much to reach out and grow the game in recent times, and Major League Baseball and youth baseball programs are direct beneficiaries. That will continue to be the case. Budgets are limited in the minors, but new and amusing programming ideas are not. On June 23, for instance, the Brooklyn Cyclones will become the “Baracklyn Cyclones” and give away Barack Obama bobbleheads in honor of our new president.

Minor league players especially enjoy playing before large and enthusiastic crowds where they feel appreciated. They frequently become community favorites with a treasured pile of local newspaper clippings.

Commissioner Bud Selig goes out of his way to point out the increasing importance of the minor leagues, insisting that they are “growing the game” in many areas of the country. “They are essential,” he told me recently, and Major League Baseball owners wholeheartedly agree.

Ever cautious, Selig envisions another “solid year” for his 30 teams, but no one is predicting an attendance record at this point in time. Last season Major League Baseball drew an impressive 78.6 million fans, the second-biggest attendance figure ever.

The commissioner has repeatedly cautioned the owners to make “every possible effort” to hold costs down and make the game affordable. At last count, two thirds of the MLB clubs have held the line, refusing to hike ticket prices. The challenge has been significant, but the returns will be long-standing with the general public and the average fan.

— Gene Budig is a former chancellor at Kansas University, the former president of the American League and a co-owner of the Charleston RiverDogs, the Class A entry for the New York Yankees in the South Atlantic League. He lives on the Isle of Palms, S.C.

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