They played a baseball game Friday night at Rent One Park. A season-high crowd of 5,862 showed up, a crowd that used to be common about a decade ago when the Miners were new in town and people couldn’t get enough of them.
They played another game of baseball Saturday night at Rent One in front of a crowd of 2,600 or so that didn’t seem that large. It was still about 400 or so larger than the season average, and that’s a trend which has caught some people’s eyes. And not in a good way.
Through 19 home dates this year, Southern Illinois is averaging 2,234 fans per date. That’s good for third in the Frontier League, behind only Schaumburg and Gateway, but it’s the continuation of a pattern which has seen attendance drop for each of the last three years.
Unless the turnstiles get a lot more action over the last seven weeks of the season, the Miners will set a season low for attendance. Their previous low occurred in 2013, when they brought in 2,573 per game for 49 dates.
Manager and chief operating officer Mike Pinto said Wednesday that the organization’s reporting mechanism for attendance is different this year and that the numbers are actually up compared to last year.
“You also have to look at the fact we’ve made significant investments in the ballpark the last few years,” he said. “The new putt-putt course, the (Hot Corner) restaurant in right field and the bar behind the plate.
“We also have built the new video board, and for next year, we’re going to put new turf on the field that will cost between 600 and 700 thousand dollars.”
Pinto also said another reason for low attendance this year is that the schedule was road-heavy over the first 50 games. Southern Illinois played just 20 games at home, including just three of the first 15 as it spent a full week on the road in late May when the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament called Marion home for the first time.
The Miners are at home for 27 of their last 46 games, including 15 of the last 21. But that’s a two-edged sword. While it should in theory lead to better crowds if the team is contending, the fact that school starts in mid-August will cut down on weeknight attendance.
“That will certainly balance things out a little bit,” Pinto said of the second half schedule.
Independent league baseball is by itself a stiffer challenge than affiliated baseball. While you play to win and aren’t subject to organizational dictum's about who you play and for how long, you still have to worry about roster turnover.
Signing players who are good enough to fill roster spots in a big league organization is its own dilemma. Twice during road trips, the Miners have lost players (closer Nick Duron to the Mariners, All-Star shortstop Bryant Flete to the Reds) and have had to play a man shy for multiple games.
Some have openly wondered if the club wouldn’t be better off larding its roster with local players, regardless of if they were good enough to compete or win games professionally. The question didn’t even have to be posed before Pinto shot it down.
“No team has won more games than we have in my 13 years in the league,” he said. “My job is to put the best possible team on the field. We play to win – every night.”
As a 690-509 record since its inception in 2007 suggests, Southern Illinois has succeeded in that mission. As the decreased numbers at the turnstile show, it has work to do to marry good crowds and winning games.