My Take – “Where are all the Fans?”
As the team made the shortest trek in the Northwest League (four and a half hours to the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland, Wash.), it gave me some time to think about the rant I had early on in Saturday’s 12-6 victory over the Spokane Indians. After last night’s 2-1 loss to Tri-City (before a crowd of 1,372 fans in a market of 200,000), I thought even harder and came up with this.
To put it bluntly – Where are all the fans?
For my nearly decade with the ball club – Friday nights always meant a sellout crowd, Saturday nights were always near capacity, with the rough nights coming on Sundays and Mondays (and even then, the Hawks would put 1,700-2,000 fans in the seats).
During the past homestand, only 2,700 fans showed up for a great fireworks show on a Friday night – even though temperatures were below 90 degrees, and only 2,470 fans showed up to recognize the accomplishments of Idaho legend Harmon Killebrew. That’s never happened before.
The question in my mind is, What is going on?
The conspiracy theories that run through me are across the board.
1. FANS THINK THE HAWKS ARE LEAVING – and don’t want to support a business leaving the valley. Let me be blunt – the Hawks AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE. I blame the Treasure Valley media for this one. I am very good friends with all of the television reporters, newspaper writers, and radio personalities, but I feel all have dropped the ball on the “stadium issue” – creating a panic among Treasure Valley baseball fans that it is imminent that the team is leaving town. Much of it stems from the Chicago Cubs, who have made it VERY clear that if progress in a new stadium in Boise isn’t made by the end of this season, that they will consider moving their short-season affiliation. But what all seem to forget is that the Boise franchise is GUARANTEED another team to replace the Cubs if they leave. I heard Jeff Caves talk about “independent baseball” returning if the Cubs leave – which was ludicrous (since that is not allowed these days in the minors), but with outstanding listenership to Idaho Sports Talk (including me every day) – fans believe it, and turn away. No fewer than 17 of the 24 short-season affiliates have their Player Development Contracts come up at the end of 2012, with only Vancouver in the NWL (Blue Jays) locked in until 2014, so shuffling could occur. They focused on – Yakima is moving to Hillsboro, what’s keeping the Hawks from leaving (or more bluntly – are the Hawks leaving)? Move to where – Medford, Bend, Walla Walla, Bellingham, Victoria, Coos Bay, Hoquiam, Wenatchee, or Lewiston? The NWL has tried and failed in all eight cities – none of which has the size of a population base as Boise. Milwaukie (Ore.) wants a franchise – but is years away due to a public vote (ask Vancouver WA about that one), and even then, it would be unclear if the NWL would allow three franchises in the same territory (Hillsboro/Milwaukie/Salem-Keizer). Each of the TV stations came out to the yard, but seemed to focus on the stadium issue instead of the game itself – if fans think the team is leaving, they won’t show (Yakima is a prime example as the Bears have drawn over 2,000 fans just once this season). KTVB did a walk-through of the bowels of the stadium, but what does that compare too? Come with us to Spokane, come to Eugene, come to Salem, come to the Tri-Cities, or even come to Yakima, to see what the other teams in the league have that we don’t in Boise (or what we have in Boise that they don’t). They would be shocked (ask Troy Oppie at KBOI after he saw what Vancouver had) as their visiting clubhouse is better than either clubhouse at Memorial Stadium.
2. GAS PRICES HAVE FALLEN – for a few years, gas prices each summer have hovered around the $4.00 mark and fans came to the park as part of a “Staycation”. Now that prices are closing in on $3.50 and lower, overnight trips, adventures, and true vacations are back on the map for the average fan – cutting into their budget to come to the games.
3. THE ECONOMY – Memorial Stadium as the most affordable family outing in the Treasure Valley ($1 tickets some nights, $1 food options, great entertainment) – in comparison to other sports and entertainment options in the market. However, though a family may take advantage of it, big groups and events are still slow in coming back to the ballpark,, as corporations and businesses have cut back on group nights and parties, which change the bottom line. On a Wednesday, you could get four tickets (shade seats), four hot dogs, a popcorn, and two sno-cones for about the same price for one ticket to a Bronco football game, or Sunday’s, get four shade seats, four hot dogs, and four sodas for $34 – and people think that the cheap seats are in the sun?
4. LES BOIS PARK – I give a lot of credit to the new investors at the horse track, they have done an outstanding job in renovating the facility, making it a destination place on Wednesdays and Saturdays. However, it has become a direct competitor of the Hawks – which will be interesting to see how Wednesday Dollar Nights will go when competing against Les Bois’ Ladies Nights. My thought is that the two entities should work together on some cross promotional ideas (similar to what the Idaho Stampede and Idaho Steelheads have done).
5. WE ARE NOT ALONE – looking at the attendance numbers in the Northwest League, it is scary to think that the Hawks rank #4 in the league in attendance, despite averaging just 2,480 fans a game. Spokane, Eugene, and Vancouver – the top three teams in attendance, have all seen a decline in attendance over the first three weeks of the season, as has Everett, Salem-Keizer, and Yakima. Tri-City is the lone team that has stayed on course, but the Dust Devils have also seen attendance spikes to the positive in each of the last five seasons. The NWL, in comparison to its sister league (NY Penn), is in the middle of the pack – as teams like the Brooklyn Cyclones (6,923), Aberdeen IronBirds (6,491), and the Lowell Spinners (5,053) draw well, but the Batavia Muckdogs (811), Jamestown Jammers (1,265), and Auburn Doubledays (1,789) draw less than Yakima. What’s tough is that Ogden (3,839) or Billings (3,638) would be #3 in the NWL in attendance, while Idaho Falls has outdrawn the Hawks each of the last three seasons since the city invested in Melaluca Field. However – everyone in the NWL outdraws the Appalachian League (highest attendance is 1,200), while the Hawks would be #7 in the 14-team South Atlantic League and #10 in attendance in the 16-team Midwest League (but they play 140 games). But this is not a trend in just the NWL or baseball in general. Sports across the country are finding declining ticket sales. Major league level sports are understandable due to the cost and the amount of coverage on HDTV’s. But when you hear the “average guy” wanting relief in this tough economy, why are minor league sports, who live by the creed of “affordable entertainment”, suffering. It is a mystery.
What can we (as the Boise Hawks) do? Is it that baseball isn’t cool like going to a BSU football game or floating the Boise River? Are the casual fans boycotting the team due to the stadium issue or is the stadium the issue in why they aren’t coming (don’t want to sit in the sun?). Is baseball too slow of a game for the average person to watch? I guess things have definitely changed since the days of staying up past my bedtime with my radio under my covers, listening to Dave Niehaus call Seattle Mariners games or Bob Robertson call Tacoma Tigers games on the AM dial.
I’d love to hear your comments on this – either here on the blog or via my Twitter account @BoiseHawksRadio.