Former big league stars turned coaches Dan DeMent (7), Gary Redus (20) and current Biscuits pitcher Hunter Wood participate in the opening ceremonies of the season debut on Thursday. (Photo by Drew Gayle)
By Graham Dunn
(April 7, 2017)
Thursday night was the season opener for the Montgomery Biscuits, the 14th in team history.
Based on attendance, you had better things to do.
Maybe, in the words of a long-gone actor from a now unpopular (as well as politically incorrect) movie – you don’t give a damn.
Indeed, it seems like Opening Night for the grand game of baseball is gone with the wind.
The Biscuits pulled out all the stops to make the opener a success. The US Air Force version of flying acrobats, the Thunderbirds, were there (and were quite fabulous I might add) as was a local Western-Swing band, the Lo-Fi Loungers, who greeted fans as they entered Riverwalk.
Thanks to the celebration of 100th anniversary of the advent of World War I we all got to stand at attention and salute France with a resounding rendition of “La Marseillaise.”
But flyovers, heroes and square dance music weren’t enough to keep baseball from playing second fiddle to something else on Thursday.
“Something else” could be any reason not to be a part of what used to be a grand tradition in American culture.
A year or two of declining attendance could be considered an anomaly. Unfortunately, this has become the norm.
Despite what you hear or read, the 2017 season-opening turnout was lower than expected and continued a trend of lacking attendance for what should be one of the better entertainment values in the Capital City.
Although there were promotions and all-day, on-location reports from television stations, turnout for the season debut dropped again for the umpteenth consecutive year.
Yes, it was cool. And it was breezy. But this isn’t Wrigley Field we’re talking about.
The crowd was nowhere near the number listed in the box score (5,681) unless around 3,500 people arrived dressed as a green chair back.
I took my own count, using weird math to come up with a better assessment. I found 60 fans in one section behind home plate, which happened to be one of the more crowded areas of the stadium. Allowing for a lenient number in each of the 20 sections and using that same number of that counted as a multiplier, the total was closer to around 1,200 in attendance.
I’ll fudge and declare the number roughly 2,000 if only because I’m a generous person.
Attendance announced by officials was based on tickets sold but who are we kidding?
Whatever math used by the home team misrepresents a disturbing issue that fans are not flocking to the ballpark these days. The tradition seems to be suffering a slow death.
Yet, “tradition” might be the problem.
Based on a stroll through the park, reasons for the decline may not be what you think.
On my walkabout, I took note of the age brackets. There were plenty of young faces wandering the concourse – and I don’t mean kids under the age of 12. Millennials were present and enjoying adult beverages as were fans of all ages (that is of legal age).
That puts to bed the idea that the generation we love to blame for all the world’s problems doesn’t like baseball.
Could this be a trend that the game doesn’t have a general following as it did in the past?
Watching MLB Network’s highlight show “Quick Pitch” late last night I tried to get a read on what attendance looked like for the big boys. Based on the eye view of the camera, numbers were lacking across the nation.
Granted, we are talking ballparks that hold upwards of 50,000 but less than a handful of the palaces were close to capacity.
The game is fighting a lot of problems – primarily its pace. Midway though the fourth inning I glanced at my watch to find out it was just a few minutes shy of 9 p.m., this after a first pitch of 7:30 (which was 25 minutes later than the announced start time). The box score said the game lasted a few minutes short of three hours but that seemed like an eternity.
Game length and start times are a problem and I’ll save the “and it was a school night” for another column.
Soon, the team will be under new ownership and members of the new group have already stated changes are needed to increase attendance. The new guys recognize one incentive is ticket prices, which have steadily risen each season since the team’s inception in 2004.
Promotions are good and the Biscuits have plenty. But is the word getting to the right people? In the business of entertainment, we are all fighting for the almighty discretionary dollar but there has to be more to baseball than bringing your dog to the ballpark.
I’ve heard ad nauseam about how attendance at minor league parks is not about the product on the field. But it seems like we’ve totally lost interest in why we’re going in the first place. The game has a certain amount of value itself else this is nothing more than a school dance with game show twiddle to pass the time.
While minor league teams have no control of the talent on the field, I believe people are interested in who is wearing the Biscuits uniform. In my younger days, it was significant to know about the doubleplay combination of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker or why I should be paying attention to a young pitcher named Dave Rozema.
That’s my job, granted, but my attempts to do more have been somewhat thwarted by old ownership who views the Internet as a byproduct.
It took a long time for the city to have pro baseball return. Two decades ago, we all heard the screams of how the fun wouldn’t last from those who didn’t see the value in building a stadium with public funds.
After debates and public forums, baseball made a grand return (apologies to the Montgomery Wings). Yes, it was marvelous for the first decade. But there comes a point when even good ideas become stale. New ownership comes at a good time but there will be pressure to make noticeable changes.
While Riverwalk has certainly proved its worth, it needs a bump to get the excitement going again. The Biscuits aren’t on a resuscitator but you only need to look north at what happened in Huntsville where baseball was just as popular there as it was here in the not-so-distant past.
In case you don’t know, that’s who the Biscuits played Thursday, only the team is now located in Biloxi.
Providing entertainment of a fiddle player on the concourse is always a good idea but the long-term success of the Biscuits falls back on giving fans new and improved reasons to come back to the ballpark.
Finding them is Priority 1.