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VOL. 129 | NO. 169 | Friday, August 29, 2014


Attendance Woes to Bring Changes at AutoZone Park

By Don Wade

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As the Memphis Redbirds closed out their regular-season home schedule at AutoZone Park this past week, pitcher Tim Cooney set a franchise record with his 14th win and the Redbirds widened their lead over second-place Nashville in the Pacific Coast League American Southern Division.

On the field, it has been a productive season.

But with only 4,662 paid tickets for that last regular-season game on Wednesday, Aug. 27, the Redbirds’ season attendance for 67 openings was just 381,429 – far and away the lowest figure since AutoZone Park opened in 2000.

Craig Unger, general manager of the Memphis Redbirds, says there are challenges the team must work through to draw more fans to games. Attendance this season set a low mark at AutoZone Park. 

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

In fact, it represented a 23.5 percent decline from last season, when the Redbirds drew 498,362 for 69 openings. And it was even down 17.5 percent from the previous worst attendance in the history of AutoZone Park – when the Redbirds drew 462,041 in 2010 during the heart of the recession.

For those who want to recall the park’s golden era, it was off 57.1 percent below the peak of 887,976 in 2001.

“I know how minor league baseball works,” said Redbirds manager Pop Warner. “Hopefully with the changes next year, some more marketing stuff, we’ll get some more people out. It’s a different feel when there’s a lot of people in the stands. There’s a buzz. You can’t help but get a little bit pumped up. That’s why I give these guys a lot of credit. Some nights there’s not a lot of people and they find a way to get ramped up and get ready for the game.”

Last January, the Memphis City Council signed off on the $19.5 million purchase of AutoZone Park as the parent St. Louis Cardinals purchased the Redbirds, their Triple-A affiliate. The Cardinals and city entered into a 17-year lease agreement for the ballpark.

The Redbirds, as founded by Dean and Kristi Jernigan, were a nonprofit and a grand idea. As Redbirds Foundation president Ray Pohlman said in 2013: “Forty-seven suites is a lot of suites and 12,500 permanent seats is a lot of seats in a minor-league ballpark. God love Dean and his vision, but we would do a lot better with 8,000 seats.”

The Cardinals agree that the ballpark has too many suites and chairbacks. Redbirds general manager Craig Unger, who took over in April after spending several years in the Cardinals’ front office, said the $4.5 million set aside for improvements to the ballpark will include a reduction in suites and pulling out chairbacks down the foul lines to get the permanent seat total around 10,000.

“We are in the final stages with our design team and the engineers,” Unger said. “Obviously the city owns the building, so we need to make sure they’re good with everything we’re doing.”

One sure thing: replacing the playing field, which is the original surface installed in 2000. Bids are being taken, and the ballpark’s drainage problem, which at least partly contributed to this season’s exhibition game with the Cardinals being canceled, will be addressed.

Unger says they also will provide more of a restaurant-style experience for suite-holders in the 200 level, as well as offering some all-inclusive tickets in other parts of the park. Enhancements might boost attendance some, but the issue is bigger than tabletop seating and new grass berms down the foul lines. The Redbirds’ 2014 average of 5,693 per game ranked ninth in the 16-team PCL.

“We knew the challenges of buying the Redbirds,” Unger said. “And that included that there is a significant amount of competition in the marketplace. In a lot of ways, it’s not limited to sports; and the Grizzlies are not direct competition because our seasons don’t overlap.”

The “direct competition” point is debatable in a market this small. What’s certain is that if the Grizzlies have to make great use of partial season-ticket plans, the Redbirds must do the same. Unger says they will continue to tweak their smaller season-ticket packages.

“People have limited disposable income,” Unger said. “They have a lot of choices, from Grizzlies to University of Memphis to SEC football to other things just around town – concerts, events, the Delta Fair, you name it.

“That’s why changes are coming,” he said. “We want to renew that energy in the ballpark. And we have to revamp the marketing. We have to shift from the model that was the nonprofit to the model that is for-profit and get out and sell our message. For us, it’s about selling tickets and getting people down here.”

Unger says most of the marketing was in place for this season by the time the Cardinals bought the Redbirds, but they did expand their radio advertising “beyond sports talk radio.” He knows, too, they have to get more creative about getting people to AutoZone Park. A church choir that gets to sing the national anthem, for instance, might lead to more families making the ballpark a regular part of their summer.

“We have to become a destination,” Unger said. “And you have to earn that business.”

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