Minor league sports focus on developing talent for the big leagues. Yet they’ve been a staple of American culture for more than a century. Reporter Pat O’Rourke explains what attracts fans to the minors.
The minors: a place where you can watch professional talent without paying major league prices. While the cost of the average major league baseball ticket is around $30, a family of four can attend a minor league game for around $60. Kevin McAllister, an associate professor of Sport Management at Springfield College, explains what minor league sports offer to the average consumer.
"Minor league sports has a number of key attractions. Number one of course is price, and, for the most part it’s much cheaper to go with a family of four to the New Britain Rock Cats or the Springfield Falcons," he says. "You can do that for one night for a family of four for less than the price of one person going to say, the Boston Celtics or the Boston Bruins. So cost is a huge factor in this. The other part is, as you talk about is, talking about a family of four, obviously, it’s family-friendly. If you were to go down to the New Britain Rock Cats, you’d see bounce-houses and family playscapes that attract, obviously, families with children, who aren’t just interested in baseball; they’d be going down there to have some fun and take in the whole experience."
The fan experience is what the Springfield Armor, NBA Developmental League affiliate of the Brooklyn Nets, focuses on when fans visit the MassMutual Center for Armor home games. Armor President Alex Schwerin explains.
"Every game, we try to create different entertainment whether it be throwing t-shirts into the crowd or getting fans down onto the court to participate in contests during timeouts or having certain theme nights that, you know, can change up the entertainment," he says. "We have a Brooklyn Nets night where the Brooklyn Nets mascot and their dancers come up from Brooklyn to entertain our fans."
The Lowell Spinners, the Class A Affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, sold out 413 consecutive home games between 1999 and 2010. Many attribute the streak to the team playing in the heart of Red Sox Nation. Director of Media Relations Jon Boswell credits the team’s dedication to creating the best fan experience possible.
"It wasn’t simply open the doors and here come the fans," he says. "We were putting these themes together, we were putting these packages together, and that’s what really drove the fan traffic. And people had such a great time that they’d keep buying tickets and they were buying tickets earlier and earlier. So by the time that our season rolled around, you already couldn’t get any tickets.
While success is usually defined by the win-and-loss column in sport, the purpose of the minors is to develop talent for franchises in the majors. McAllister explains what minor league franchises must do to stay afloat while putting wins on the backburner.
"You have to redefine success," he says. "All of these franchises have to focus on the players of tomorrow. And that’s really what they promote, they use it as part of their advertising, and that kind of gets people in the door, to hopefully see these future stars. And, you know, once these stars make it big, they of course um, promote these players in future advertising.
Doug Battema, the Chair of the Department of Communication at Western New England University, shares a memory of a Hall of Famer he saw play in the minors.
"I got to see Rickey Henderson play when he was in A-Ball," he says. "That was really cool and you could tell even then that he was going to be a star."
The fans are generally most interested in are the future stars of their favorite team. The Lowell Spinners have the luxury of playing in Red Sox-crazy Eastern Massachusetts. Jon Boswell talks about the advantage of the franchise’s location.
"It’s huge," he says. "You look to the north and there’s a team in Manchester that has an affiliation with the Blue Jays. Well, when they market their product, what do they market? They market themselves playing the Portland SeaDogs, a Red Sox affiliate. So the fact that we have the Red Sox name we can tie to our brand is huge."
The Springfield Armor is located in the birthplace of basketball, blocks from the Basketball Hall of Fame. Schwerin explains how the Armor uses the Hall of Fame to its advantage.
One of the new things we did this year was we created a ticket package with the Hall of Fame where you could basically buy a ticket to the Hall of Fame, admission to the Hall of Fame, and a ticket to an Armor game all in one package," he says. :So we’ve tried to be collaborative, in terms of our efforts with them to help drive traffic to the Hall of Fame as well as have the Hall of Fame driving traffic to our games.
Minor league franchises look to connect with the community to sell tickets and make ends meet. The Rochester Red Wings have been playing games in Rochester, New York since 1899. Over the years, the Red Wings have built a close bond with the people of Rochester. Doug Battema talks about that connection.
"Sometimes people will bring their families to the ballpark, not just because it’s cheaper than going to see an NFL, NBA, MLB game, or not just because it’s closer, but also because there’s an historical connection there," he says. "So for instance, people go to see Rochester Red Wings games in upstate New York in part because their grandparents may have gone to see those games. They may have taken them, their children, when their grandparents children were kids and then those parents bring their children because it’s a tradition."
McAllister credits price, location, and the development of stars as the three factors that draw fans to the minors, and allows those smaller franchises to turn a profit – even when competing for big league attention.