New Look ABL Increases Attendance for 2018/19
Fans have reason for cautious optimism with attendance figures indicating a renewed interest in the re-modelled Australian Baseball League (ABL). Overall a total of 112,496 people passed through the turnstiles during the 160-game season, an increase of more than 24,000 from the previous year.
The current incarnation of the ABL was established in 2010 in a partnership with Major League Baseball (MLB). At that time all six clubs were centrally owned to ensure stability. However, in recent years MLB has redirected their funding in the region toward player development, placing significant financial stress on the league’s existing operational model.
As a result, during the offseason the league began inviting potential private owners for each of the clubs, to attract a new source of ongoing capital, while simultaneously adding two additional teams; Auckland and Geelong-Korea, heralding a new era for professional baseball in Australia. To accommodate this expansion, a divisional system was implemented for the first time.
If first impressions count, then the move has generally been a success. The average attendance accounting for each of the foundation clubs went up by 15%, with large gains recorded in Brisbane (up by 31%), Canberra (up by 33%), and Sydney (up by a whopping 42%). Of the other clubs, Perth saw a small decrease, but nevertheless remains the best and most consistent drawcard across the league with a historical average crowd of 1,298 per game.
The transformation for Sydney’s Blue Sox, who are based at Blacktown International Sports Park, has been notable – the game-day fan experience has been transformed after being run down over recent seasons. Of course, having a winning team also helps, but fans obviously appreciate the efforts of the new front office. For example, spectators are now treated to a wide-range of US-style foods (think nachos and ice cream-filled mini helmets), and have also seen the return to a more personal and engaging approach to customer service.
However, some issues still remain unresolved – like Perth, Melbourne’s attendance also decreased slightly since last season, and has now been dropping for five successive years. The Aces were the only club not to finalise their new ownership for the 2018/19 season, however, so perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt for the time being. But Adelaide also remains a concern, where despite now being owned by the Adelaide Crows AFL club, crowds have averaged below 500 for the past two seasons – despite making the Championship Series in both 2015/16 and 2016/17, the club has struggled since. The Bite moved to a baseball-specific facility in West Beach from their previous home at Norwood just two seasons ago.
The two new teams have made a solid start in obviously challenging circumstances. Geelong-Korea represents the ABL’s first permanent foray into a regional city, an attempt to tap into the lucrative Asian markets; the league has also stated a willingness to accept a team from Taiwan into the ABL in coming years. The Auckland Tuatara had an unsettled year based out of McLeod Park in West Auckland, but also had to host numerous games on the road. They finished the season with their first series win (over play-off bound Melbourne), and will move into North Harbour’s QBE Stadium from 2019/20. Both teams can be expected to further consolidate their presence over coming years.
Meanwhile, the first ever ABL wildcard game takes place on Wednesday night (AEDT) with Canberra travelling to Melbourne. The winner of that game will progress to a three-game semi-final series against the Bandits in Brisbane, while the other semi-final series takes place in Perth, with the Heat hosting the Sydney Blue Sox. The two semi-final winners will then do battle for the Claxton Shield in the ABL Championship Series across the weekend February 1-3.
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