I was in junior high when I began worrying about Tacoma’s Pacific Coast League baseball team.
That’s when it was the Tacoma Cubs and the owners decided to move the team to another city. It was Stan Naccarato who stepped up in 1972 with a group of 20 local business leaders to create the Tacoma Twins. That group provided nearly two worry-free decades but ultimately sold the team to Californian George Foster in 1991.
Foster ushered in the most-worrisome time in the team’s history, often complaining about Cheney Stadium and sending messages that the team’s days were numbered. When he, too, put it up for sale in 2000, we suffered rumor after rumor of new owners and movements to other cities. There was even a prospective buyer who was offering the team to two cities at once – Reno and Honolulu.
A sale to a Texas group that pledged to work with the city and keep the now-Tacoma Rainiers in town only lessened the worry. It wasn’t until the city patched together money for a stadium renovation and the team was sold to a quasi-local ownership group that it finally seemed secure.
But I’m a worrier. After setting an attendance record of 378,518 in its first year in the new Cheney Stadium, attendance fell this season to levels that were common in the old stadium – 352,032. Even the 2011 record was good enough to finish only 11th in the 16-team PCL. So, should I worry yet again?
“I have no concerns about the viability of the franchise,” team President Aaron Artman said last week.
Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t have concerns. The team makes money, an amount Artman characterized as “a little bit.” And the new ownership group led by Curtis High graduate and Bellevue resident Mikal Thomsen is “having fun with it,” Artman said.
But attendance is not where Artman hoped it would be, even taking into account that Cheney is the smallest ballpark in the league.
“We’d have liked (attendance) to have been over 400,000 in 2011,” he said. “I run into people all the time who say they drive by, think it’s beautiful but have never been here.”
The city does rely on attendance for some of its stadium debt repayment burden – a ticket tax and a 50 cent per-ticket surcharge. Interim city finance director Steve Call said he is concerned that revenue to the city is falling short and has met with Artman to talk about boosting the attendance number.
The team’s business model is less dependent on the raw attendance number than it used to be. Specialty tickets like those in the suites, the Summit Club and the Dugout Club are lucrative and robust, Artman said. And group sales – the church, school and community groups that are recognized on the scoreboard – have been good.
Where the Rainiers fall behind the other teams in the PCL are the spontaneous ticket buyers who decide the day of the game – even the afternoon of the game – to attend.
“We have the lowest walk-up in the league,” Artman said. “In terms of our market size, we should get another 50,000 a year in walk-up.”
One explanation might be the location of the stadium, almost suburban and dependent on fans driving to the ballpark. In the highest-attendance cities, the ballparks are downtown or among other attractions.
“They do much better with walk-up because people are already there doing stuff,” he said.
Artman doesn’t seem to be complaining: “We control what we control.” He is, however, puzzled and determined to break through with the regular fan. Games at Cheney Stadium have gotten more expensive, but there are still nearly 3,000 seats in the $7 to $11 price range. Artman said there will be more low-price deals like a return to 1960 prices for kids on some nights and $5 tickets midweek. He said he’d love to get some games on cable to promote the team.
He’d like to attract more 20-somethings with an expanded beer garden, similar to The Pen at Safeco Field. And he promised better food and better service next year with emphasis on local products.
“I think we’re in a great position,” Artman said. “We need to keep attendance numbers growing. We just have to figure out how to do it.”Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @CallaghanPeter