A less worrisome trend

One of the things that surprised and helped attract me to this area 18 years ago was the fact that Salisbury had a minor league baseball team. I’ve always had a little bit of familiarity with the minor league system from following my Detroit Tigers and seeing the back of thousands of baseball cards, but it never dawned on me that Delmarva was the team representing Salisbury, just like one may not guess that the old Tidewater Tides were actually playing in Norfolk, Virginia or that the Down East Wood Ducks are from Kinston, North Carolina.

After the pandemic wiped out the 2020 season, we learned that a few of our erstwhile opponents in the South Atlantic League would be saying goodbye to the affiliated baseball ranks without giving their fans a chance to say sayonara to the team. While the Lexington Legends transformed themselves into a franchise in the independent Atlantic League, followed by the West Virginia Power – who were reborn as the Charleston Dirty Birds – the Hagerstown Suns disappeared from the baseball world, done in by poor previous attendance and facilities. (The good news for them: they will get a new stadium and also join the Atlantic League for the 2023 season, at least as of last September.)

In baseball’s realignment for 2021, the Shorebirds were one of five former South Atlantic League teams shuttled to the Carolina League, which flipped levels with the SAL to become a full-season class A league. (The SAL became what’s known as an advanced-A league.) In that respect we were joined in the move by the Augusta Greenjackets, Charleston (South Carolina) Riverdogs, Columbia Fireflies, and Kannapolis Cannon Ballers (who had already planned a name change from Intimidators and new stadium for 2020 before the season was scrubbed.)

This all may be old news to the folks who read this website and know I’m a passionate fan of the Delmarva Shorebirds: enough so to take the time each month to select a position player and pitcher of the month, pick a Shorebird of the Year each season, and host a page on my site for the Shorebird of the Week Hall of Fame for all the guys who make The Show. But it’s important to the reason I felt it necessary to do this post.

In the winter of 2020, I was very concerned that the Shorebirds would follow the fate of the aforementioned Legends, Power, and Suns. Knowing that the Orioles enjoy having most of their affiliates within easy driving distance and also knowing the game of musical chairs enforced by Major League Baseball was going to leave one team standing on the sidelines, it was apparent to me that the cut was going to come down to either us or Frederick, since the teams in the upper minors appeared safe and they were going to find a way to keep Aberdeen with the closeness to Baltimore and the Ripken influence. As it happened, Frederick was the odd team out.

Because of the pandemic restrictions for 2021, I knew attendance would be way down – truth be told, I was just happy to get the season we did given how heavy-handed the government reaction to the CCP virus was. The Shorebirds ended up with about half their usual attendance, although toward the end of the 2021 season things began to look a little more “normal.” So I was concerned about how things looked in April this season, when we had several nights with three-digit attendance figures. And I got to thinking: was it just us, or was this a league-wide thing? So I decided to do a study, and here’s how it worked.

As I said above, there were five teams that shifted from the SAL to the Carolina League which I could use as comparisons to a previous base year, 2019 – the last full “normal” season. However, the new stadium in Kannapolis eliminated that apples-to-apples, leaving me Augusta, Charleston, and Columbia to use as comparisons. While there were affilation changes at all three due to realignment, I presumed that would be of little to no effect. (Maybe somewhat in Augusta since they went from the San Francisco Giants to the nearby Atlanta Braves, but Yankees to Rays in Charleston or Mets to Royals in Columbia – eh, not so much.)

My methodology, taking games played between the season opener and Memorial Day – which was a leaguewide day off this season – accounted for both attendance and weather, since the box scores indicate both. I even came up with a formula to determine how good the weather was for each team and season because that’s an important factor as well: based on the weather at game time I factored the weather as a zero for rain or drizzle, one for overcast, two points for cloudy, three for partly cloudy, and four points for clear or sunny.

So is the issue only with Delmarva or are we not alone? Let’s take a look, beginning in alphabetical order with Augusta.

Augusta Greenjackets

Home stadium: SRP Park (2018), capacity 4,782

In 2019, they had 23 home dates prior to Memorial Day and averaged 4,125 fans per game. Their average temperature at game time was 83 degrees and the weather factor was 3.44, meaning their games generally occurred in clear to partly cloudy weather (only one had a delay.) Their record at Memorial Day was 24-27.

Three years later, they had 24 home dates prior to Memorial Day and averaged 4,175 fans per game – basically a wash. This despite an average temperature that was three degrees cooler and weather just slightly worse at a factor of 3.33, with just one delay. This year they were 23-22.

What this tells me is that whatever slight bit of luster the stadium has lost is being countered, perhaps by taking marketing advantage of the new Braves affiliation. (Three of their four affiliates are now in Georgia.) They look to be in pretty good shape for the time being.

Charleston Riverdogs

Home stadium: Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park (1997), capacity 6,000

The 2019 season saw the Riverdogs average 4,327 fans for their 27 home dates prior to Memorial Day, with great weather: a 3.52 weather factor, with just one delay, and average of 80.8 degrees at game time. (Can we borrow some of that?) The team was 28-23 at Memorial Day 2019.

This year, despite a better team at 31-14, their attendance slumped to 3,810 per date for the same 27 dates. I don’t think there’s THAT many passionate Yankee fans in Charleston, so perhaps the reason was the weather: while the weather was less than one degree cooler at 80.4 degrees, the weather factor was down to 2.78 thanks to three cloudy days and two games that began in the rain. In terms of real bottoms in the seats, the team is down 14,000 from their 2019 total-to-date, and if that tracks for the season like 2019 did it would make a significant dent in attendance that totaled over 300,000 that year. A drier summer, though, may allow the Riverdogs to catch up or at least hold serve.

Columbia Fireflies

Home stadium: Segra Park (2016), capacity 9,077

The Fireflies were still rather new to Columbia in 2019, so they averaged 4,201 per date for their 22 pre-Memorial Day dates that year – this despite a weather factor of 2.77 and three games with rain delays, as well as an average gametime temperature of 77.6 degrees. The team wasn’t great on the field that season, hitting Memorial Day with a subpar 19-32 record.

Three years on, they still don’t have a great team despite new affiliation, trailing the Carolina League with a 14-31 record on Memorial Day. So even though the gametime temperature (77.4 degrees) held remarkably steady between the two years, and they had better weather (a 3.24 factor) and only two delays, their attendance has declined markedly to 3,367 per game.

Historically, Columbia hasn’t been able to keep a team very long – their previous team, mostly known as the Capital City Bombers, lasted a couple decades before being moved upstate to Greenville in 2005 and becoming what’s now known as the Greenville Drive. But it’s somewhat of an unfair comparison because the team came to Columbia in 2016 and had the benefit of Tebowmania in 2017, so attendance wasn’t going to stay on such a plateau. Still, a drop of nearly 20 percent would be concerning to most owners and league officials. And that leads me to…

Delmarva Shorebirds

Home stadium: Arthur W. Perdue Stadium (1996), capacity 5,200

At the start of 2019, the Shorebirds were opening a fantastic season – they began with a 24-4 record, hit Memorial Day at 39-11, and finished with 90 wins and the first half SAL North title. So despite a weather factor of just 2.96, one delay, and an average gametime temperature of 70 degrees, the Shorebirds averaged 2,398 for their 25 openings.

Fast forward to 2022, and we have the opposite team: just 16-29 on Memorial Day. While it’s seemed like a cold spring here, our gametime temperature was only a degree cooler at 69.3 and the weather factor only slightly worse at 2.86. The team had no weather-related delays. (They did get an umpire delay at a game I was at. Need to make sure not to eat where he did.)

So the drop in attendance to 2,147 per game is a little troubling, but not as significant as Columbia’s. In fact, it’s fairly comparable to Charleston’s, which means a dry and warm summer could get us back into the neighborhood of 200,000 fans overall. (We will have four fewer scheduled dates for the foreseeable future as A-ball teams are now scheduled for 132 games instead of the previous 140.) Based on average, that’s a drop of 12,000 fans for the Shorebirds right there but because most of that shortage is on the Mondays they now have as an almost-perpetual off day, it’s more like about 8,000 fans.)

And because this is a phenomenon hitting three of the four teams I studied, I think it may be the setting up of a new normal that’s hopefully just a base which can be improved upon once economic conditions finally improve – that, however, will have little to do with baseball.

If – and that’s a pretty big if at this point – the Shorebirds do somehow manage to get 200,000 fans at this point, that’s going to be a testament to a loyal fan base that hasn’t minded the mediocre-to-bad teams Baltimore has normally sent us over the years to show up and see the boys play. To see all the empty seats in April I was pretty worried Seventh Inning Stretch LLC, the owners of the Shorebirds, may find an excuse to leave our friendly confines by their selling the team to someone who wants to move it either the available facility in Frederick or the new stadium in Hagerstown but if attendance stays reasonably steady or improves for the next few seasons they’ll maintain their investment.

Do that and, good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be there.

Postscript: since the original draft of this I wrote the week after Memorial Day while the Shorebirds were on the second and last two-week road trip for the season, the Shorebirds had a five-game homestand that featured wildly varied attendance figures: high triple-digits on Tuesday and Thursday, the usual nice 2,000-ish crowd on Wednesday from the Silver Sluggers (age 55+ promotion where they get discounted tickets) and solid crowds on Friday and Saturday of over 4,000 apiece – the two largest crowds of the year and first ones over 4,000. Friday may have been helped a bit by the long-awaited pro debut of Heston Kjerstad (2nd pick overall in the 2020 draft, sidelined in 2021 by myocarditis and since early spring training with a hamstring injury) and Saturday was a Little League day. Both Friday and Saturday had fireworks as well. (Sunday’s game was rained out and Saturday’s was delayed two hours by rain as well.)

Overall, they drew 12,957 for the five games, so if you round it up with what could have been a decent Sunday attendance of 2,043 to make the math easy it’s 15,000 for the set. (That number would have been doable since the Shorebirds were planning a postgame mini-clinic for kids.) Going back to my “picks and pans” last year I mentioned that their largest 6-game set in 2021 brought 14,249 to friendly confines of Perdue; well, this year they beat that number with the last 6-game set before Memorial Day and most likely would have again this week had rain not foiled those plans. (In looking back, though, that six-game set was only five due to a Thursday rainout so it probably would have been someplace around 16,000 for six games – just about even with what we drew the last week of May.)

Going forward, the end of the school year will hopefully help build the midweek numbers a bit and there are several good promotions and big-crowd events still to come. So I feel a little less worried than I was and I like having the numbers to back it up.

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