Normal Baseball: A New Frontier

I was in row two for the opening game of the team’s existence, a 7-0 shellacking of the Evansville Otters in their historic Bosse Field.  For the five of us that made the trip, it was an optimistic start to the return of professional baseball to Bloomington/Normal.  With two additional wins to complete the weekend sweep, the Normal CornBelters’ first season in the independent Frontier League would start with significant momentum.

As of this writing, they now sit in fourth place in the Western Division (26-33), 18 games out of first and ten games out of playoff contention.

But wins and losses aren’t the topic here.  I’m sure there must be growing pains for every franchise, and I would expect nothing different for the ‘Belters.  As an occasional patron, I hope to see the franchise succeed, as it’s nice to have a summer entertainment alternative on those nights the CornBelters are at home.

I fear that, in this community, “alternative” could be the biggest challenge they have, however.  Bloomington/Normal has enough sports fans, that much I’m sure about.  There are loyal fans of the Illinois State Redbirds, Illinois Wesleyan Titans, five high schools, a junior college and two additional professional teams in sports other than baseball.  But with no Major League affiliation to leverage, can the local team draw and sustain enough loyalty to consistently pay the bills, especially with no post-season hopes by the middle of July?

Can they survive as an entertainment “alternative,” and not an attendance mandate like an Illinois State basketball game is to an established fan base?

I’ve been around a few baseball games in my day, but that certainly doesn’t qualify me to run a minor league team.   With no real understanding of the business aspects surrounding this endeavor, I can only form an opinion based on what I see or read.  Club president Steve Malliet was quoted in the Bloomington Pantagraph earlier this year that he “estimates the CornBelters need an average attendance of 2,300 to break even financially.”

The photo above was taken Saturday night in the 4th inning of a 15-3 loss, and the reported attendance was 2,413.  Most of the stands are empty.  I assume “paid attendance” is just that – paid ticket sales including season ticket holders that may or may not make it to a game.  But if Saturday night’s attendance is accurate, there is either a lot of season ticket holders with other plans that night, or a whole lot of people sitting in the outfield grass.

Concession sales have to be part of the financial equation, right?  With this many people staying home, there must be an impact there as well.

I’m not interested in lambasting the local investment in the Corn Crib like detractors of the U.S. Cellular Coliseum have been doing the last couple years.  In reality, I think it was a stroke of brilliance by former Heartland president John Ashtroth to get a 12 million dollar stadium built on campus for the three and a half million dollar contribution Heartland had to offer.  If the CornBelters don’t make it long-term, the stadium certainly isn’t going anywhere.  But it’s simply too nice of a facility to sit idle through the summer months.

The biggest fundamental flaw I see in Frontier League Baseball is the lack of anything more than geographic allegiance to get excited about.  You won’t regularly see “prospects” take the field, the high draft picks that begin in the low-minors with promise of the big time.  The highest drafted future major league player to compete in the Frontier League was former St. Louis Cardinal Jason Simontacchi, a 21st round pick in 1996.

But if you’re content with mediocre baseball and support it because it takes place locally, there have been highlight moments.  The franchise’s first home run by Daniel Cox in the opener in Evansville brought a cheer from our contingent of five.  Cox still plays third base, having his contract recently extended to the end of the season.

Opening day starter Tyler Lavigne is now tossing for Red Sox affiliate Lowell (Mass) Spinners, a promotion that looks favorably on the CornBelters’ management.  Unfortunately, his 3.1 innings pitched have resulted in a 10.80 earned run average, not the numbers that suggest baseball longevity.  On the bright side, he WAS part of the team last Saturday when the Spinners’ fans set a World Record for the most people (3,672) popping Bubble Wrap simultaneously.

I was there to see manager Hal Lanier get tossed recently with his team trailing 9-1 early in the game.  At the time, I couldn’t decide if he did it for entertainment value, or just wanted to watch something besides the beat-down his team was taking that evening.  Professional wrestling is notorious for having a manager hit someone with a chair to get the crowd engaged; maybe this was Hal’s “chair” this night to silence the groans that littered the audience.

But all this aside, I can’t help but wonder if this community will support the endeavor long term, especially when I see a large majority of seats unoccupied during a Saturday night game.

On July 17th and 18th, the CornBelters had an aggregate attendance those two nights of 5,232.  This was only 230 shy of the Peoria Chiefs attendance for the same two nights, a suggestion that Bloomington/Normal is indeed supporting their baseball franchise in it’s rookie season.  Currently sitting fifth in average attendance in the Frontier League, the reported numbers show a better than average following compared to other league teams.

Building a fan base takes time.  Minor league baseball thrives on marketing and gimmicks, catering to the family audience as much as the standard fan.  Promotions get people through the gate, and the between inning antics come in especially handy on nights when the home team lays an egg.  The ideal situation is for the team to be competitive and in the pennant race every season, but these types of ancillary activities go a long way towards easing the pain in years when the diamond product is subpar.

If the attendance figures the league publishes are legitimate, it would appear the CornBelters are hitting their solvency threshold in their intial season.  Let’s hope so – it would be nice if professional baseball remains a fixture in Bloomington/Normal for years to come.

It’s better than the alternative.

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