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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Sox losing to A-ball?

Attendance woes aggravated by better alternatives?

I heard a very interesting statistic this week that I’d like to share.  There are now four minor league baseball clubs in the Chicago metropolitan area.  They are the Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League, the Schaumburg Flyers and Joliet Jackhammers of the Northern League, and the Cook County Cheetahs of the Frontier League.  In the 2002 baseball season, which just ended for all of the minor leagues, those four clubs drew a total of just about one million fans.  The Cougars, with the largest ball park, drew about half of that total with the other three clubs splitting the rest.   

To my mind the most interesting thing about all of this is the total of a million fans because it seems to me that that is just about the average decrease in annual attendance the Sox have seen over the past two years.  During the early 1990s the Sox consistently drew over 2.5 million fans a season.  Now they seem to be lucky to draw an annual attendance of 1.7 million.  

Where did those fans go?  My guess is that a whole lot of them are watching games in Geneva, Schaumburg, Joliet, and Crestwood rather than watching the White Sox.  The Sox made a big gamble when Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf took over ownership of the Sox in 1981.  They decided to turn their backs on the kind of casual fans that Bill Veeck and his shill in the announcer’s booth, Harry Caray, had catered to. 

Caray appealed to the blue collar, hard working (and hard drinking) fans who populated Comiskey Park throughout most of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Einhorn let it be known on day one that this was not the audience the Sox would be marketing to in the future when in an unintentional slap in Veeck’s face, he said that the new operating partners would be running “a first- class organization.” 

Harry soon took his act to the North Side, and within a year or so, the Cubs home ballpark went from being “beautiful Wrigley Field,” a nice place to go on a quasi picnic with the family into “the world’s largest beer garden.”  The Sox did reasonably well through the early ‘90s with their new image as a family attraction, particularly when the club was playing well on the field as they did for a couple of years in the early ‘80s and then again for several years in the early ‘90s. 

But then something happened.  First there was the strike of 1994-95.  Reinsdorf was accused of being the ringleader of the hardliners among the owners.  When the Sox failed to continue their winning ways once play began in 1995, the fans started staying away in droves.  Meanwhile from 1991 through 1995 attendance at Cougars games was rising from around a quarter of a million fans to just under a half million.   

The Cheetahs and Flyers made their debuts in 1999.  The Flyers have been a bigger attendance success story than the club from Crestwood, but they also play in a ball park with a lot greater seating capacity.  The Jackhammers played their first games over Memorial Day weekend this year and have also been a good draw for fans from the south and southwest suburbs. 

Altogether, thee three independent clubs drew close to a half million fans this year in much smaller ball parks than the Cougars, a Marlins affiliate.  That’s over a million fans seeing ball games, and each of them are playing in ballparks that can be reached rather easily from some combination of south, southwest, and western suburbs, where Jerry Reinsdorf and Co. target their marketing. 

And therein lies the problem for the Sox.  The minor league clubs are also targeting the family audience, and their much more effective in doing it.  While the Sox target one day per month as kids day and feature clowns, a petting zoo, etc. and a special walk-up ticket price of a dollar per kid,. along with the season-long “Fun-damentals” area, the minor leagues are marketing to this demographic group on a nightly basis.  

If mom and dad decide to go to a minor league game with their two kids, they can expect to pay a maximum of $9.00 per ticket, a total of $36.00, and the parking will be free.  For the same family to drive to Comiskey Park on kids day, mom and dad will pay a top price of $26.00 per ticket for themselves, and another $2.00 for the kids.  If they park in a Sox lot, they will pay another $13.00.  That’s a total of $67.00 before they even have a bite to eat, nearly double the price at the minor league ball parks.  If mom and dad are looking for the best value for their dollar, the Sox lose. 

While the Sox feature a few off-the-wall promotions such as “Elvis Night,” the minor league clubs have attractions that will amuse kids on a much more regular basis.  Although Birdzerk, the Zooperstars, “Myron Noodleman” or (a really bad ripoff of the Jerry Lewis “Nutty Professor” character) may not be your cup of tea, kids seem to love them.  Mom and dad will probably go more for Jake the Diamond Dog or the Mascot race, or any number of other between innings features.  My personal favorite is the “Human Bowling Ball” at Kane County.   

Want to run the bases at a real ball park?  The kids can do it once a month at Comiskey Park.  The kids can do it at many or most of the home games at several of the minor league parks. 

The Sox lost a lot of the “casual fan” base that had come to Sox games to drink and party.  That fan base has been surrendered to the club on the North Side.  Meanwhile the Sox are unable to draw the family audience they’re trying to nurture because families find that it’s just as easy to attend a game out in the ‘burbs, and it costs them a lot less. 

Am I advocating a return to the Friday night drunken brawls in the stands that were so prevalent during the Veeck years?  Probably not.  Those of us who like to actually watch a baseball game can do so most nights without too much distraction nowadays at Comiskey.  On the other hand, the very fact that the Sox are losing their target audience to minor league clubs seems to indicate that something is drastically wrong with this strategy. 

It could be the high ticket and parking prices.  Or it could be that while the kids are entertained by all the extras at the minor league parks, the parents are treated to the brand of baseball played by young kids who are fighting for a chance to make the big time, rather than the corpseball that was so common on the South Side this year. 

The Sox seem to be going into some form of rebuilding mode again this year.  Since the young players have been brought up, there seems to be new life in the Sox.  So if my premise is true, will this boost Sox attendance? 

The answer is that unless the Sox really come out and dominate the AL Central next year with no collapse before Memorial day, as has happened the past two years, the fans won’t pay major league ticket prices for what they consider to be AAA talent.  Not when there are four real minor league teams in the area.


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at nsmf@aol.com.

More features from Hal Vickery here!

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