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VOL. 131 | NO. 126 | Friday, June 24, 2016

Redbirds Home-Game Attendance Ahead of Last Season

By Don Wade

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As this baseball season was dawning, new Memphis Redbirds majority owner Peter B. Freund was at AutoZone Park and being made to field questions about the team’s sliding attendance.

As recently as 2013, the Redbirds had drawn nearly 500,000 fans – averaging 7,223 tickets sold – to finish fifth in the 16-team Pacific Coast League attendance standings.

After finishing last in attendance in the Pacific Coast League in 2015, the Memphis Redbirds’ attendance is about 25 percent ahead of last season. New majority owner Peter B. Freund says it would be a “huge victory” if the team can maintain that pace through season’s end.  

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But the next season they were 10th, averaging fewer than 6,000 fans per game, and drawing a total of just 381,429.

And then in 2015, the Redbirds’ attendance dropped to a PCL-worst 278,579 for 69 openings and a league-low of 4,037 per game. Or less than half of the 9,338 that league-leading Sacramento averaged. The comparison of Memphis and Sacramento – each city has an NBA team – was not lost on Freund.

“We are not a city that should be in the bottom of the Pacific Coast League in attendance,” he said back in April. “It’s ridiculous. This should be top three, top four … certainly in the middle of the pack the next couple of years and then we’ll make our way up.”

With 36 openings thus far in 2016, the Redbirds are on the climb. They are averaging 4,708 fans per game, which ranks 14th in the league. But their total attendance of 169,476 has them about 25 percent ahead of this time last season, according to Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled with the direction of the club,” Freund told The Daily News. “The read was, let’s increase 10 percent a year for the next five years, and we’re ahead. Having said that, we’re nowhere near satisfied.”

Freund, who is president of both Trinity Packaging Corp. and Trinity Baseball Holdings, is principal owner of the Williamsport (Penn.) Crosscutters, a Philadelphia Phillies Class A affiliate, and co-owner of the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs, a New York Yankees Class A team.

So he is not new to the minor league baseball business. He also has a small stake in the Yankees. Striking a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals to get the majority share of the Redbirds gave him a Triple-A club. He has been in town for every homestand and describes this first season as a “year to observe.”

Often, Freund and Unger walk the ballpark and discuss ideas for raising the team’s profile and bringing more fans into the ballpark, which was downsized to about 10,000 seats in 2015 in conjunction with many enhancements, including a new all-inclusive club and tabletop seating on the club level behind home plate.

The Redbirds have had three weekend sellouts this season – fans clearly view Saturday fireworks nights as good bang for the buck – but still struggle on weeknights. This is not new.

Yet the Class A Dayton Dragons in Ohio, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and just 55 miles away from the parent club, have sold out every game since coming to town and opening a downtown ballpark in 2000 (the same year AutoZone Park opened).

Eric Deutsch, who is executive vice president for the Dragons, says even their ongoing streak of 1,154 straight sellouts doesn’t tell the full story. The ramp-up for the team coming to town started years earlier. So the 7,200-seat ballpark was in demand.

“We sold out every stadium seat before the first pitch was ever thrown,” he said.

That’s amazing enough. But bordering on unbelievable has been the team’s ability to sustain the buzz, and for Fifth Third Field with its 29 suites and four party decks to continue to be the place to be. Consider: To whatever degree one might consider Redbirds players to be “nameless and faceless,” the Class A players of the Dayton Dragons are more anonymous.

Sure, a future Reds star such as Joey Votto or Jay Bruce comes through now and again. But you can’t know they will be stars when they are still three steps below the majors.

Deutsch says about what you would expect him to say of the club’s approach: an emphasis on fan entertainment and service, strong food and beverage offerings, and a commitment to deliver fun – what can be controlled – without worrying about what the players do or don’t do on the field. In 17 years, the Dragons have actually lost more games than they have won.

But it’s become a place to be. Everyone loves the toddler races with the competitors careening between their parents in their little Dragons T-shirts and crash helmets. And the team has been around long enough now that it has developed some generational traction. Deutsch talks to today’s season-ticket holders about the past – remember when you held your son’s 10th birthday party at the ballpark? – and the present: Hey, how’s he doing in grad school?

Freund knows the Dayton story well.

“There is a little magic pixie dust over the Dayton Dragons,” he said. “But that’s the dream. I will say that for the 159 other (minor league) affiliates, it’s not like that.”

The Redbirds, with various city, business and tourism factions, recently took a swing at bringing the SEC Baseball Tournament to Memphis next year and beyond. That might have created some much-needed momentum. Instead, the tourney will remain in Hoover, Ala.

“The SEC athletic directors were impressed with the facility and the Downtown amenities and convenience,” Unger said. “We knew from the beginning the hardest part was going to be to oust the incumbent. We were disappointed.”

But not disheartened. Once the Redbirds’ season is done – their last home game is Aug. 29 – AutoZone Park will still serve as host for the Gildan Triple-A Championship Game on Sept. 20. Unger says group sales are key and that some groups not able to attend a game in the summer are locking in on that date.

The Redbirds also continue to push theme nights – Saturday, June 25, is to be Princess & Pirate Night, and every treasure trove ticket is to come with a wand or an eyepatch. The Redbirds will also have another Grizzlies-themed night late in the season to coincide with the release of the NBA team’s 2016-2017 schedule.

The home schedule at AutoZone Park is halfway over, and in Freund’s mind, the glass is more than half full.

“I don’t feel greedy,” he said about the attendance numbers. “If we’re holding (at 25 percent above last year), that would be a huge victory.”

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