Chris Graham: Take me out of the ballgame

baseball-newMore than a few Waynesboro Generals baseball fans were mildly upset that the opening ballgame of their team’s second-round 2013 Valley Baseball League playoff series was called by rain only after the team had made an hour-plus bus trip to the field to find out that the home team had somehow neglected to put its tarp down on the field before what turned out to be a brief storm had hit.

Two took their complaints to the Valley League Facebook page. (I was one of them.) One of them went to the trouble before Game 1 was played the next night to put a message on an old tarp that he had found in the garage.

Got Tarp?

Another fan, fond of the old baseball phrase “can of corn,” used to describe an easy pop fly, set up several cans of corn on the visiting team dugout for Games 1 and 3.

For Game 3 of the series, hula hoops, brought along to poke fun at the home team head coach, who had told the opposing team’s coaching staff that he would take batting practice before Game 2 on his home field, to avoid all the “hoopla” on the road, made their first appearance of the postseason.

Attendance for the two playoff games at New Market’s iconic Rebel Park averaged 342, more than double the team’s season average in 2013 of 156 fans per game.

Not bad, from a business perspective.

The Strasburg Express also made some money off the hyperactive interest of Generals’ fans in their team’s fortunes, averaging 586 fans for their two home games in the 2013 VBL championship series, nearly four times their average regular-season gate of 155 fans per game.

That Generals fans were relegated to seats down the baselines (with views at the oddly configured high-school field obstructed by the dugouts) by signs on the seats behind home plate noting that those seats were reserved for Express fans only added fuel to their fire as their team rallied from a 6-0 loss in Game 1 to take the series in Strasburg in a memorable 6-3 Game 3 series clincher.

Waynesboro, as the eighth seed in the 2013 playoff field, had just three home games in its run to the title, playing five games on the road, with fans – mostly host families and volunteers in charge of things at home games like the scoreboard and admissions and the Internet radio – forming caravans traveling up and down Interstate 81 for the better part of two weeks at the end of an already long summer.

You’d think the Valley League would thank them for plunking down their bucks for the tickets, hot dogs, drinks and the rest, considering how far in the tank fan interest in the VBL product has fallen, with one team, Rockbridge, folding up its tent at the end of the 2013 season after a short five-year stint as a league member, and the average attendance at games among the seven teams that even bothered to report attendance to the league in 2013 at 269.3 fans per game (four summer leagues, Northwoods, Coastal Plain, West Coast and Cape Cod, averaged 1,000 or more fans per game in 2013, for comparison).

But no, to the contrary, according to two sources close to the situation, a new league directive that could subject teams to fines of as much as $1,000 for violations of the VBL’s Code of Conduct, the standard line about how the league promotes “good sportsmanship” and “supporting the participants and officials in a positive manner,” is aimed squarely at the Generals franchise, to the point that discussion of the directive at league meetings in the offseason cited the complaints on Facebook and the Got Tarp? messaging displayed by a Generals fan at Rebel Park.

Let’s put this in its simplest terms: this is a business, in the Valley Baseball League, that is failing, and failing miserably. Five teams didn’t even report their attendance to the league in 2013; among those that did, the league leader in average attendance was Front Royal, with 405 fans per night. Only two of the 51 teams that play in the Northwoods, Coastal Plain, West Coast and Cape Cod had lower average attendance.

Quality of play is one key issue there. The VBL used to be universally recognized as one of the top two and then later top three leagues in summer college baseball, in the ballpark with Cape Cod and Alaska, but now it’s just as universally recognized to be outside the top 10. A lack of any semblance of a cohesive marketing strategy is also at fault: Waynesboro was the only team in the league on over-the-air radio in 2013, and the Generals aren’t renewing their broadcast partnership with powerhouse Valley AM station WSVA in 2014, meaning the only way you can hear a VBL game, once again, is by going to the Internet. As a broadcaster of Generals’ games the past five years, I know the numbers there, and they ain’t good; on a really good night, we’d have 50 people tuning in, which it doesn’t take much to deduce was primarily parents of players on the two teams.

The league’s profile is such that when I’d tell people around town about my involvement with the Generals, I’d get as many, What are the Generals? questions as I would, Hey, when’s the next game?

Even fighting that uphill battle, a decline in the overall quality of play, and declining effort to tell anybody that we still do play, the Generals, at least, have been doing better at the gate in recent years, second in the league in regular-season attendance in 2013 at 390 fans per game, and leading the pack by a wide margin in the postseason, drawing 630 per for their three home games in the 2013 playoffs, in addition to the numbers boost provided to the road gates in New Market and Strasburg.

But in a league with a leaguewide issue with attendance in serious decline, with several teams not even reporting their gate numbers, with one team folding up shop, the focus of the league office is not on what to do to get more fans interested in the product, but instead in telling one fan base that is massively interested in the product to tone it down, at the risk of getting your team fined.

This would be comical if it wasn’t also profoundly sad to the few of us who still care that the Valley League doesn’t go the way of the dinosaur, as seems inevitable at this point. I grew up just outside of Waynesboro listening to Generals games on the old WANV most summer nights, occasionally getting to a game at Kate Collins Field the other nights. I followed the stories and box scores in the paper every day all summer, and knew the stars and their vitals like they were my own. One of the highlights of my pre-teen years was being able to meet Denny Walling, by then a member of the Houston Astros, at a Cub Scouts meeting, and have a Polaroid picture with him.

The big deal was more that Walling had played a season as a Waynesboro General more than that he was a Major Leaguer or that he’d been the #1 pick in the draft in 1975.

(OK, it was a big deal that he had been the #1 pick and that he was a Major Leaguer and a Waynesboro General. But still.)

Now that I run a media and marketing services company, it bothers me to no end to see the league forego any kind of basic common sense when it comes to reaching out to fans, both existing and potential new fans, to not only try to maintain, but also grow from its small base. Fans passionate enough about their team to take complaints about a questionable rainout to Facebook shouldn’t have their hands smacked, and fans who invest the time and effort to bring a tarp, cans of corn and hula hoops with them shouldn’t risk seeing their favorite team subjected to fines because they do so.

There’s a reason why I keep referring to my affiliation with the Generals organization in the past tense. Years of frustrations that I’ve had with the league office focusing its attention on mundane issues like fans who root, root, root for their favorite teams to the point of trying to run those fans off while ignoring that there ain’t many other ones out there who even care anymore that there is a Valley League finally took their toll on me.

To paraphrase that god-awful line from LeBron James, I’m taking my talents elsewhere this summer. I haven’t had a summer vacation in five years, spending nights at the ballpark or on the road after spending my days trying to make sure that I didn’t fall too far behind in business. Good news: we have a beach house rented for a week in the middle of the VBL season. I’ve also had to miss the past couple of ACC Football Kickoffs, important to my job as an ACC football writer at Augusta Free Press, because they happen to fall in the final week of the VBL regular season. Not going to miss the 2014 edition.

I’d like to congratulate the VBL for its success in running me off the field for 2014 and probably forever more. For the sake of a league that I once loved, I hope that others don’t follow suit, but if they would, I wouldn’t blame them in the slightest.

Baseball is supposed to be, above all, fun, but the brand that the folks in charge in the league office are selling us is anything but fun.

I don’t have to plunk down $25 for two tickets, a couple of hot dogs and drinks to be told to pipe down; there’s libraries that’ll let you in for free that will take care of that.

– Column by Chris Graham

 



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