Tonight, barring unforeseen weather, there will be a Star-Spangled Banner, starting lineups and a ceremonial first pitch.
There will be warm-ups, then the smacking of leather as a ball hits mitts and the cracking of wooden bats sending said ball down into the dirt or out into the glare of lights and cool night sky.
For TinCaps officials, the hope is that thousands upon thousands will pack Fort Wayne’s Parkview Field to witness it all.
As the fourth season of baseball downtown begins, don’t think for a second that officials aren’t watching the gates, keeping an eye on the turnstiles and analyzing attendance figures.
Once upon a time in this city – the early 1990s – people poured into a shiny new stadium in record numbers. Then, attendance for the newly coined Fort Wayne Wizards began to drop steeply after the first year to near-anemic levels. And some TinCaps officials are familiar and know the drill.
In a sport where other teams and organizations – both in the major and minor leagues – have seen attendance shrink as the sheen of new stadiums wear off, the TinCaps’ organization is trying to keep fans’ experiences at the ballpark fresh.
And in turn keep them coming back to games.
So along with the crack of doubles down the line or the throaty voice of the umpire calling a third strike, there will be hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill – plus steak sandwiches and chicken, too.
There will be dollar beers tonight, a giant-headed mascot dishing out high-fives to the kids, on-field games and promotions between innings and then, after the final out, a fireworks show – the first of many this season.
Those are the attractions that have proved popular to fans, according to team officials.
And they’re attractions that may have been neglected at one point during the team’s initial run at Memorial Stadium on the city’s north side, where attendance declined rapidly after a huge first year in 1993.
The thing we do that I’m most proud of is that we do our homework, said Michael Limmer, vice president of marketing and promotions for the TinCaps.
Writing new history
Limmer’s experience in Minor League Baseball began in 1999 when he joined the TinCaps as an intern when they were the Fort Wayne Wizards.
That year, the team drew 201,395 fans to Memorial Stadium, a club low that stands to this day. Put into perspective, the team drew 318,506 during its inaugural year in 1993, which was considered a huge success.
Immediately, though, the numbers began to plummet. A little more than 266,500 fans came to the park in 1994; 233,000 showed up the following year; and then a little more than 224,000 came the next season.
Other parks built in minor and major league cities during the 1990s also saw attendance declines in the years after first opening.
Michigan cities Lansing and Grand Rapids both built parks for their Class A Midwest League teams in the mid-1990s and saw huge attendance numbers – each more than 500,000 fans a year – before a significant drop-off.
Both teams now take in about 300,000 fans a year.
The Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, among other major-league teams, built new stadiums where attendance rose during the first few years. But after about a decade or less, the average attendance at each of those parks dipped.
Texas’ runs to the World Series each of the last two seasons has since brought record numbers back to the Ballpark in Arlington, proving – anecdotally at least – that fans love a winner when it comes to the majors.
Which might show why attendance lags in the other towns, where the teams’ records range from mediocre to bad.
In the minors, where no team controls the players it has or will have by season’s end, it’s about giving people in the stands an experience they won’t forget, Limmer said.
That might include having Johnny – the TinCaps’ mascot – take a picture with a kid. Or a fan getting his own baseball card put in the team’s set like last year or another fan getting his or her likeness on a bobblehead, which will happen this year.
The least we can do for them is to make a memory for them and their family they can talk about for a long time, Limmer said.
That philosophy paid dividends at the old park, where in 2000 the numbers began to spike, rising from the paltry few in 1999 to more than 252,000 fans in 2000.
Tents were erected just outside Memorial Stadium’s right-field wall – which was lowered to give people there a view of the game. The team promoted its picnic area heavily. Giveaway contests were hatched, national entertainment acts were brought in and fireworks shows were scheduled.
And the number of tickets sold to groups like businesses or churches and charities – groups that were either neglected or not marketed to heavily in the past – increased sharply, Limmer said.
We just completely expanded, Limmer said. We wanted to give people a ballpark experience, and we focused on the group-area options. That was the biggest thing that bumped up attendance.
Model for TinCaps
The Dayton Dragons are the epitome of a minor-league success story – from the attendance perspective.
Last year, the team, which plays with the TinCaps in the Midwest League, had its 815th consecutive sellout. A stadium built for the team in 2000 attracted more than 580,000 fans during that first season.
After a slight dip, attendance has only gone up. In 2004, a team-record 593,000 fans visited, and last year more than 586,000 people attended a game – mainly, team officials have said, due to what’s offered fans in the stands.
All of that’s been done in an area hit hard by the recent recession, though many minor-league officials tout the game’s affordable ticket prices as an alternative to going to the more expensive major leagues.
And, showing that you don’t need to win to attract fans, Dayton’s record during many of those years has been lousy.
What we’ve seen is a lot of children and women or even men who are not so much sports or even baseball fans will come back because of the social outing, the entertainment experience, said Eric Deutsch, the Dragons’ executive vice president, in an interview with National Public Radio last year. It’s fun.
That’s what the TinCaps try to emulate, according to Limmer.
They’ve developed what we’re striving for, he said. When you have a ticket there, you go, because it has value, because you can’t always see a Dragons game.
While attendance was down slightly last year at Parkview Field, Limmer attributed that to rainouts early in the season and an unusually hot summer.
He said the team bucked a trend the year before by having more fans come through the gates during 2010 than its first year of operation in 2009. And he no longer hears about parking or safety downtown – two areas of concern expressed by critics of the ballpark during its construction.
Limmer also said he and his team take notes at every game, about the food, about how ushers and ticket-takers treat people, about what can be done differently and always about new ideas.
The recent drop in attendance does not paint a pessimistic picture for Limmer. If anything, we see a potential for an increase, he said.
This year, there will be more fireworks after games because they were immensely popular with groups last season, Limmer said. There will be new food, a few new contests and nicer weather, with any luck.
And for the team, it is hoped, more fans.