Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trouble waiting in on-deck circle if Goldeyes don't wise up

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SCHAUMBURG, Ill. -- That ringing sound you heard in downtown Winnipeg this summer was warning bells going off at Canwest Park.

And you need look only at the once thriving Schaumburg Flyers franchise down here to see what can happen -- and how quickly it can happen -- if you ignore signs of trouble in the Northern League.

First, a 2010 Goldeyes review: The 5,654 fans the Goldeyes averaged at home this season, while enough to win the club it's 11th straight league attendance title, is the lowest per-game average in the 11-year history of Canwest Park.

It was about 10 per cent less than the 6,180 fans per game the Goldeyes averaged in 2009 and almost 1,000 fans per game shy of the all-time highest average at Canwest Park of 6,542 per game.

That's not good. And what's worse is this year's precipitous attendance decline, while the sharpest drop the club has ever recorded year-over-year, is actually just the continuation of a long-term decline in fan interest in the Northern League club.

This year's total attendance of 271,399 represents the sixth straight year that Goldeyes attendance has declined and attendance is now down over 50,000 fans from the all-time peak at Canwest of 323,241 in 2004.

And on the field, the Fish have now missed the playoffs three times in the last seven years -- and lost in the first round the other four years.

It's not a pretty picture. And it begs the question, what happens from here? The Goldeyes can only hope it doesn't resemble what has happened here at Alexian Field, home to the once proud Flyers franchise.

The Flyers have now missed the playoffs for the last four seasons, and five of the last six, and will this season draw their worst-ever crowd numbers. (How bad is it? There were, maybe, 300 fans, in the seats for opening pitch here Friday night. That's in a stadium that holds 7,048).

The Flyers ownership status is murky. The team has been for sale for awhile now and a proposed sale was announced about a month ago. A press release was issued, but things have gone quiet since and the status of the sale is now again uncertain.

Throw in a shoestring staff running the entire Flyers game-day operation, some facility issues, and the entire Flyers organization, on and off the field, pales in comparison with what was once one of the elite organizations in the Northern League.

How do the Goldeyes avoid a similar fate?

On Friday, I suggested -- however improbably -- the Fish aggressively pursue Fargo skipper Doug Simunic, the winningest manager in the history of the Northern League.

But that will not address the off-field product, which a friend reminded me a couple of weeks ago has become, to put it politely, a bit stagnant. "This is the first Goldeyes game I've seen in probably seven or eight years," my friend reported, "and not a thing has changed."

Actually, that's not true. There are no more bat-spin races. And the sumo wrestling is only done once or twice a homestand now, instead of every night.

But aside from that, about the only noticeable changes in the Goldeyes game-day production are in the club's apparent increasing willingness to turn its on-field, between-innings promotions into shameless advertising for corporate sponsors instead of the entertainment of fans.

The Goldeyes demographic is old and getting older and when there isn't much to see during the innings -- and there wasn't this year -- there has been very little original between them to make up for it.

A familiar recipe for success is now just old and tired. Just like the fans. It's time, way past time, for some new life.

The solution? One model would be to look at the Manitoba Moose, who had a virtually identical demographic -- seniors and older people on one end of the spectrum and kids and their parents on the other -- for the first decade of their operation.

But instead of getting complacent in a successful recipe that reliably turned a profit, the Moose have evolved, adding an edge to the game day production that has significantly -- and statistically -- lowered the age of the demographic.

Which is not to say the Fish should abandon everything they do. One of the attractions of baseball is its long traditions and there are constants that work for the Goldeyes, not against them. The voices of the Goldeyes, for instance -- broadcaster Paul Edmonds and PA announcer Ron Arnst -- are both outstanding at what they do and are as familiar as a comfortable old sweater. You feel better for having them around.

But the first step in recovery is to acknowledge you have a problem. The evidence from this summer would seem to be irrefutable, the volume of those alarms going off at Canwest Park never higher that it is time for change. Dramatic change.

We'll find out this winter if Goldeyes management was listening, or if -- through the sixth straight year of attendance declines -- they once again had their heads collectively buried in the infield.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2010 D1

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