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VOL. 129 | NO. 7 | Friday, January 10, 2014
Don Wade

Don Wade

Can ‘Cardinal Way’ Improve Park Attendance?

By Don Wade

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To put it in the game’s terms, the Memphis Redbirds/AutoZone Park/St. Louis Cardinals defeated political skepticism and doubt by a score of 8-4 and saved baseball at Third and Union for many summers to come.

Memphis City Council members voted 8-4 on Tuesday, Jan. 7, to approve the city’s $19.5 million purchase of AutoZone Park and another $4.5 million in improvements to the stadium, which opened for business in 2000. As part of the deal, the Cardinals bought their Triple-A affiliate and entered into a 17-year lease agreement with the city at $300,000 a year.

If you want to dig into all the nitty-gritty details, read Bill Dries’ story on the subject in the Thursday, Jan. 9, edition of The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

In broad strokes, I’ll tell you that the deal has some built-in protections for the city should the Cardinals decide to opt out early or if sales tax rebate revenues don’t meet projections to help pay any stadium debt.

But as this saga has unfolded, I’ve found myself paying less attention to the hardcore financials and political back stories and more time pondering a tougher, even more troubling, question:

Is there really anything the Cardinals, or anyone else, can do to make us feel about the Redbirds and that beautiful ballpark the way we once did?

Inevitably, the novelty has worn off. We know AutoZone Park is not home to the highest-level professional sports team in town. That changed with the first Grizzlies game at The Pyramid in the fall of 2001. By 2004, the Grizzlies and the Tigers men’s basketball team were playing in brand-new FedExForum.

Quite simply, the pretty minor-league ballpark slid down the sports food chain.

The unsettling truth is that what the Redbirds drew at Tim McCarver Stadium in the 1998-99 seasons – just under 400,000 fans total each year, or about 5,600 per game – is closer to the attendance at AutoZone Park in recent years than in what I’ll call the ballpark’s Golden Era: the 2000-2004 seasons, when attendance ranged from 730,565 in 2004 to the peak of 887,976 in 2001; average attendance was never lower than 10,400 and hit 12,507 in 2001.

Fast-forward to 2013 and you have the fifth straight season the Redbirds failed to crack the 500,000 mark, with the low of 462,041 coming in 2010.

So while I appreciate Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak saying the Cardinals have the goal to get to 600,000 per season and will correct the Redbirds’ and AutoZone Park’s “underperforming” ways, I am curious as to just how they will do it.

Sure, several million dollars in upgrades to the ballpark – now targeted for the 2015 season – should provide short-term help. But in recent years it has become difficult to get a big crowd without post-game fireworks and/or it being a Friday or Saturday night. It’s as though over time fans have taught themselves that going to the ballpark is a once-or-twice-a-year weekend thing and nothing else.

The last few years of success by the Grizzlies can take some of the blame. But that doesn’t explain everything. Early spring attendance is notoriously bad, a combination of weather and the kids still being in school enough to keep many fans away. Then comes summer, but also sometimes stifling heat (St. Louis overcomes weather with a major-league product).

Also, the Redbirds’ prime time as a destination is short because in the Mid-South the sports fan begins tilting toward college football season by mid-July when SEC Media Days are on the horizon. That’s what folks are talking about in offices. People wonder who might play quarterback for Tennessee or if Ole Miss might really contend in the SEC West, not who is leading the Redbirds in hitting or how many games in front or behind they are in the Pacific Coast League’s American-North Division.

Mozeliak says the Cardinals’ aim is to “make a profit at this ballpark. We certainly aren’t coming down here trying to run losses.”

I believe the Cardinals will give it a great shot. They are, after all, used to winning.

But winning at the box office in Memphis might well be more challenging than the typical summer of competition in the National League Central.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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