Des Moines, Iowa — On a hot and sunny Friday afternoon, Todd Wanninger strolled into Principal Park while his kids excitedly burst through the gates.
Wanninger lives about 100 miles away in Carroll, Iowa, and isn’t exactly a die-hard fan of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. But he priced out a trip to the ballpark on the banks of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers and was quickly convinced the trek was worth it.
“I was kind of shocked when we went online and bought the tickets,” Wanninger said. “It’s cheap entertainment.”
Wanninger hasn’t been alone in seeing a good deal: Minor League Baseball officials said that just under 21.5 million fans attended games through the end of June, an increase of 934,704 through the season’s first three months from 2009.
Officials credit better weather this season and lingering concerns about spending too much in a still-struggling economy. According to a Minor League Baseball survey, it costs an average of $57.70 to take a family of four to one of its ballparks; the average cost for a major league game is $194.98, according to a report released in April by sports marketing publication Team Marketing Report.
“You’re not going to go to the beach and spend a week because of family finances. But maybe you’ll see a few more games,” Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner said.
The minor leagues set records for overall attendance for five straight seasons last decade, topping out at just over 43.2 millions fans in 2008. Those numbers slumped to 41.6 million last year, but the early signs point to a comeback this season.
O’Conner and other minor league officials are quick to point out that they haven’t exactly reinvented the wheel this season, largely because they don’t have to. There hasn’t been a league or individual club affiliated with the majors that’s gone out of business for at least 25 years, according to Minor League Baseball spokesman Steve Densa, and the popularity of the minors is evident in the glut of new ballparks around the country.
For many clubs, the increase in ticket sales in 2010 has as much to do with the weather as the economy. A relatively pleasant spring and early summer, particularly in the Northeast, have helped spur ticket sales for an industry that’s always tied to the whims of Mother Nature.
“It would be disingenuous to suggest that the weather hasn’t impacted us. Last year was a very wet, cold June,” Eastern League president Joe McEacharn said. “We’ve certainly had very favorable weather in April and May.”
The Double-A Eastern League saw attendance jump 4 percent through June. Having Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg make five starts for Harrisburg certainly helped, but McEacharn said other factors deserve credit, too.
In addition to better weather, ticket packages now include food and drinks, clubs are offering discounts through social media Websites, and teams are focusing on increasing group sales.
Eleven of the 15 minor leagues affiliated with the majors have reported increased crowds through June compared to 2009.
In tiny Clinton, Iowa, home of the Class-A LumberKings of the Midwest League, group sales have help drive a marked increase in attendance. General manager Ted Tornow said the team has sold 79,162 tickets through 42 dates this season, as opposed to just 58,899 through 41 dates in 2009.
It’s a jump so large that Tornow has trouble putting his finger on exactly how it’s happened. He pointed out that he’s seen more local companies and organizations buying groups tickets than ever before.
Tornow believes that businesses might be looking at LumberKings games as an inexpensive way to boost employee morale.
“Are we printing money? Are we lighting the world on fire? No. But at the same point, we’re not doing terribly bad either,” Tornow said.
O’Conner estimates that by the end of the season, minor league clubs will draw roughly 1.5 million more fans than they did in 2009.
“I’m not sure anyone’s sure we’re at the bottom of this economy thing, (but) people are settling in and want some normalcy in their life,” O’Conner said. “People are starting to come back.”