newspaper 5/4/08 the Patriot-News:
Acouple of things quickly become obvious if you've spent any time watching the Harrisburg Senators at Commerce Bank Park this year.
First, fan attendance is dismal. Over the first 12 home dates, the average crowd at the City Island ballpark ranks significantly lower than any of the previous 21 seasons after the Class AA baseball team returned to the Eastern League in 1987.
Second, first-year general manager Randy Whitaker relentlessly walks a path around the stadium, chatting up fans and employees, desperately seeking answers for the questions about low attendance figures.
Disgruntled fans, many of whom have been attending Senators games for 15 to 20 years, are emerging. But they're not spending their dough at the Aluminum & Concrete Fantasyland.
The club's new front office, including majority owner Michael Reinsdorf, vice president Bill Davidson and Whitaker, all of whom are in their first seasons with the Senators, collectively decided on taking the franchise in a new direction and boast a decidedly different approach than their predecessors.
The city of Harrisburg previously owned the team, selling it to Reinsdorf's group for $13.25 million after the 2007 season. Reinsdorf quickly added Davidson as a consultant, and, soon after, longtime general manager Todd Vander Woude and assistant Mark Mattern were out in favor of Whitaker, a former TV executive with no prior experience in minor league management.
That's not to say this new regime was doomed from the beginning, nor does it mean attendance won't grow exponentially in the coming weeks and months, making these early woes all but forgotten.
But both sides -- fans and management -- need to join forces soon if the South Division-leading Senators want to play home games in front of respectable audiences.
As of now, they're miles apart.
"The perception is that the new management is all fluff with nothing behind them, no experience in baseball," said Carl Fritz, a season-ticket holder for more than 15 years.
If the [general manager] change was a financial issue, it is understandable. Ownership has the right to do what they want. But they lost 25 years of personnel contacts."
Fans like Fritz and Norm Bilodeau, a season-ticket holder since 1988, as well as numerous others who remain anonymous, point to a number of reasons for the weak attendance.
Higher food prices but lower quality that accompanied the addition of Sports Service as the concessions leaders;
Fewer amenities for season-ticket holders, who no longer utilize their own entrance and no longer receive promotional giveaways if they're not among the first in line;
More frustrated employees who, fans speculate, are upset over a loss of "employee food discounts," bitter about the forced or voluntary removal of previous employees, or both.
Said one fan: "I took a stroll around the stadium and noticed the friendliness that exists between staff and fans is gone.
"The fact that good, quality baseball is being played in [independent-league cities] Lancaster and York, Harrisburg must make it possible to catch the attention of the fans and attract them back to City Island, or it will be a desolate place."
Fritz was particularly critical of the food and Sports Service, which the Senators utilized years ago before dropping the company and running solo under the direction of now-departed Steve Leininger through 2007.
"Sports Service was a disaster when they were at the park before," Fritz said. "Supposedly food quality was upgraded? Give me a break. How do you upgrade a hot dog?
If I want a gourmet meal, I will eat before the game. Ballpark food is intended to be affordable to those in attendance. We do not get many doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs to these games.
"And you do not change what was working as a moneymaker with something you are not going to sell. If you want to sell 10 super dogs instead of 100 hot dogs, go ahead."
By Patriot-News count, the price increased by 25 cents to a dollar for at least 12 different food items.
Whitaker and Davidson are certainly aware of the lackluster attendance, but they're confident the numbers will change.
"We believe that at the end of the season, more people will visit Commerce Bank Park than last year," Davidson said. "We have a very strong promotional lineup with very heavy media promotion behind our events."
Davidson added that announced attendance figures are deceiving, saying previous years' statistics were bumped by a large number of free tickets provided to sponsors, a practice the new regime does not support.
"I anticipate we'll have more people actually in the park in 2008, but announce a lower attendance figure than 2007 because of our approach to free tickets," he said.
An issue important to both sides is promotional giveaways. In years past, the Senators supplied fans with upwards of 40-45 giveaways. This year, that number is in the high teens.
"I just received some research that showed giveaways have among the least marginal affect on game attendance compared to other game features across the country," Whitaker said. "And the giveaways we have are higher quality -- fewer of better instead of a lot of lesser."
Regardless, it's a work in progress for both sides.
"This year is a building process," Whitaker said. "I don't believe we're in any worse position now than the team was in previous seasons. Our ticket redemption rates are markedly up this year over last. That means that people who purchased are actually coming at a higher rate.
"That will only get better as the weather progresses, schools let out and our significantly increased marketing efforts continue to spread the word."
Whatever the reasons, the on-field product is, so far, better than it's been in years. The onus rests with those in charge to find a way to get folks in the stands to support the efforts of the team.
GEOFF MORROW: 255-8250 or email@example.com
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