American Association not big on big crowds

Attendance in some cities quite simply laughable

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ST. PAUL, MINN. -- Agoraphobics will enjoy watching baseball in the American Association -- there is not much reason to be fearful of crowds in this outfit.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/05/2011 (4097 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ST. PAUL, MINN. — Agoraphobics will enjoy watching baseball in the American Association — there is not much reason to be fearful of crowds in this outfit.

Returning to Sioux Falls this week for the first time in 10 years drove home that point. (The last time I was in Sioux Falls, I woke up badly hung over, flicked on the television and saw a live report showing the World Trade Centre Towers burning, but still standing.)

What emerged from four days in Sioux Falls this week is that the Sioux Falls franchise — like the three other former Northern League franchises in St. Paul, Lincoln and Sioux City that defected to join the AA in 2006 — has aged badly.

JAY PICKTHORN / ARGUS LEADER The Goldeyes played in front of sparse crowds in Sioux Falls this week.

Consider: The Sioux Falls Canaries team that missed the playoffs in 2005 — the last season Sioux Falls played in the Northern League — drew 118,611 fans in a 96-game schedule.

Last year, a Sioux Falls team that was widely regarded as the best team in independent baseball and which advanced all the way to the league final, drew a total of 86,518 in an identical 96-game American Association schedule — or not even 2,000 per game.

And based on what went on at the Birdcage this week, it’s hard to imagine they’ll even get that this season. A total crowd of 1,192 turned out Monday night for the home opener at Sioux Falls Stadium against the Winnipeg Goldeyes — and that was actually a good crowd.

Through four home games this season — all of them this week against Winnipeg — Sioux Falls drew a total attendance of 4,530. That’s right — total, for an average of 1,130 per game.

That’s almost 1,000 fans less than the league-leading 5,358 fans per game Winnipeg has averaged in their inaugural season in the AA.

Yeah, it’s early in the season, but that’s still a joke. Except it’s not really funny when you consider the Goldeyes’ fortunes are now hitched to a league where attendance is much lower than what we saw in the Northern League in even its bleakest days.

Consider again: The worst attendance in the Northern League last season came courtesy the Lake County Fielders, who drew just 2,741 fans on average, largely because the Fielders didn’t have a ballpark and split their home games between a tiny Wisconsin college park and a makeshift park they slapped up by mid-summer.

As messed up as that was, the Fielders still drew better on average than five AA franchises did last season — and more than double the laughable 1,226 they averaged in Sioux City, another former Northern League outfit with a perfectly serviceable park.

The 56,428 total attendance in Sioux City last season was almost exactly one-half the 113,590 the Explorers drew in 2005 in the Northern League. Next stop bankruptcy?

Attendance has also gone down sharply in Lincoln, where the Saltdogs drew 163,676 last season compared to 207,744 their final year in the Northern League.

And even in St. Paul, for years the undisputed attendance heavyweight in independent baseball, the bloom is off. The Saints were famously sold out every game for years on end, drawing a capacity crowd of 6,329 every night. Not so anymore.

Last season, the Saints led the AA in attendance with an average of 5,063 per game. Through four early openings this season, the average is 4,142.

Put it all together and one of two scenarios emerge. 1) Either, the Goldeyes — along with teams in Fargo, Gary and Kansas City who also left the Northern League to join the AA for this season — are going to lift up the rest of American Association teams and put some life in a loop that has grandiose plans for further expansion even as existing teams struggle.

2) Or the newest members of the AA are going to repeat history, get dragged down right along with the rest of the circuit and at some point wake up and wonder: Why’d we leave the Northern League again?

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

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