It all became clear to me on Aug. 26. Now, I've heard more rumblings and grumblings from fans about their experience at Coca-Cola Field this year than almost any other. And a lot of it was simply kick-out-the-Mets talk. But there's so many more reasons than just that one when you ponder why the Buffalo Bisons' experience suddenly seems a tad stale and per-game attendance at the park this year was the lowest of its 25 seasons.
And Aug. 26 became the magic day. The Bisons were leading Rochester, 1-0, heading into the seventh and final inning of the first game of a double-header. Zack Wheeler, the New York Mets' top prospect, was on the mound getting set to warm up and try to finish a three-hit shutout. It was maybe the best-pitched game we saw all season.
But all of a sudden, Wheeler had to break from his routine and stop. So did the infielders, who couldn't do their between-innings warm-up. Why? It was time for Buster Bison to race a kid around the infield and this kid was way, way, way too young to be out there. He had no idea which base to run to, so the infielders directed him. Wheeler couldn't throw home while kiddo and Buster were heading to the plate either. Talk about a useless distraction.
My first thought: If they were here, Bob and Mindy Rich would absolutely hate this.
My second thought: Get the kid off the field!
Remember when the park opened in 1988 and the marketing slogan was "Every Game's An Event"? Just as they have from day one downtown, the Bisons still offer affordable, family-friendly fun but you should note that slogan includes the word "game." They seem to have totally forgotten that.
Many of you disagree, but I still maintain the likely switch to the Blue Jays will inject some life to the park next year. Particularly in the form of new customers from Southern Ontario and the return of old ones who might have been turned off by the Mets. But if the Bisons want to capitalize on 2013, they have to get back to baseball.
It's not a festival where people go once a year like Allentown or the Taste of Buffalo, or Wingfest. It's supposed to be a baseball game. More of the focus needs to go on the field, the players, baseball information. There's time for silly games but it can't be a constant avalanche. And in the information age, people are getting a woefully small amount of information from the Bisons about baseball these days, both what's up in the International League today and what's gone on with the franchise in the past.
I've got a few suggestions - OK, more than a few - on how the Bisons can improve their situation. And I solicited advice on the topic from fans via email, Twitter and Buffalonews.com, receiving more than 100 responses. Some of them were highly critical of what the team was doing. But it should be noted many of them had high praise for large parts of the team's operation, with kudos centered on promotions, mascots, friendly staff and low prices.
It should also be noted the ballpark is still quite a magnet for downtown. I would guess the Bisons actually put more people into it this season than in the last 10 years or so, when you combine the regular season and Triple-A All-Star activities along with non-baseball events.
But they can do a lot better with their core activity and audience.
Economics and MLB
Syracuse had the second-lowest attendance in the 16-year history of Alliance Bank Stadium. Rochester had its lowest attendance at Frontier Field, which also opened in 1997. The Bisons had a record-low here. What's up with Triple-A ball in New York State?
Face it, folks in these parts are struggling. There's less disposable income. Pretty hard to shell out for 8-10 games, even at these low prices. And forget season tickets. There's a lot more going on in downtown Buffalo too. In 1988, you went to the ballpark and Shooters/The Pier and went home. Now there's the Chippewa District. Thursday at the Square has morphed into Thursday at the Harbor. There's a festival every weekend it seems.
I was stunned by how many respondents said they're not that interested because the Bisons aren't in the major leagues. The whole MLB expansion chase ended in 1991, a full 21 years ago. Many others admitted they like the Bisons but simply stay home and watch five or six big-league games on TV or their computers or I-pads. Couldn't do that until the last 10 years or so.
In the last 25 years, the Bills have gone to four Super Bowls and the Sabres have pushed into the NHL's conference finals four times. This year, they combined for nearly 60,000 season tickets. That's where people are spending their sporting dollar. Not much left over for baseball.
"The Bisons experience is wonderful, it's just something I would expect to experience in Batavia or Jamestown, not a city that has a team in the NFL and NHL," one fan wrote me.
"I am one of those people that go to one or two games a year," said another. "It is not because the team stinks or because of the 'ballpark experience.' It is simply because it is not Major League Baseball."
Embrace the game
You walk into Coca-Cola Field and you have virtually no idea you're at a Bisons game. Zero. The team needs to put banners up in the huge ceilings of the main concourse honoring the great Buffalo teams and players of the past. There should be colorful banners celebrating other teams in the IL and honoring the parent club too. Places like Rochester and Pawtucket do a terrific job of this. There's not one picture anywhere of any Bisons player or moment from the past downtown, at War Memorial Stadium or even Offermann. Not one. Just advertising. The Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame is tucked away upstairs on the club level and many of the plaques are looking shabby.
There's great displays in the clubhouse with team pictures of every Buffalo club since 1988 and a photo wall of players going from Buffalo to the bigs. Those should be replicated in public areas so fans can enjoy them. They would be perfect additions.
The team took down its championship banners in left field last year for huge banners advertising the all-star game. What a mistake they were never put somewhere else in the park. Nothing went back in their place after the game. I have faith the old "Championship Corner" will be revived next season. It better be.
Use the video board for old clips of Bisons' historical moments, baseball-card like profiles of players (so people know who they are) and start a daily "Bisons Alumni in the Bigs" feature. Only so many kisscams and "Call Me Maybe" videos can cut it. Can some of the stupid games. What exactly was the purpose of the pony race?
Publications needs to be upgraded. Yes, that costs money but it should be done. Everything can't be on the Web site. People will pay for a quality game program. Collectors will buy the media guide, which the team stopped printing and went electronic-only with in 2010. You'd help people learn about the history of your team. Right now, there's nowhere to read about it. I hear about this all the time.
Between innings, the score often comes off the main board and is nowhere to be found. Terrible. An auxiliary linescore is needed somewhere, maybe in right-center. The marquees on the facing of the club level just scrolled, "Welcome to Coca-Cola Field" all game. Silly. Where did the IL and MLB scores go? Throwing them up once in a while on the big board is far from good enough.
I still get angry emails about the All-Star Game too. The public wasn't invited to the Tuesday workouts, there were no autograph sessions and players were ushered out of the game-day luncheon early, again with no chance for signings. Many fans complained about the team's impersonal approach to the big event. A major missed opportunity.
I've always liked spending Bob Rich's money, and he's spent plenty of his own on this park over the years, too. The biggest capital project needed for 2013 is the seats. Rip 'em all out. They're faded and tons of them are broken. The place looks shabby. Get rid of the red and go all blue. Put in some wider seats and fewer seats in rows to cut down on the now-too-large capacity. Maybe add some more party decks to get even more seats out.
New stadium lighting was put in two years ago and I've never had a player complain to me it's dark on the field. But the fans are howling because it's nearly pitch black in the stands in spots. More lighting is needed under the overhang of the entire main level and under the roof upstairs. You can barely read out there.
What else? The bathroom sink faucets have been too close to the wall to put your hands under for 25 years. Do we have to wait to year 50 to get them fixed? Long overdue to pony up for flat-screen TVs at concession stands and get rid of the 1980s squares. And speaking of the concourses and concessions, people want more tables or standing areas to eat. People want wi-fi in the seats too. It would help them follow the game.
. The $1 day of game surcharge on all tickets was a terrible idea and should be dropped. People have been howling about it. There's no demand for tickets because the park is too big, there's nowhere to park by the ticket office to get them in advance and fees on the website can come close to the cost of the ticket. Too bad it rained at 4 p.m. and you lost your walkup. You lose more people by aggravating them with this moneygrab. "Markdown Monday" advertises $7 tickets, except they're $8 at the gate on game night. Just plain bad business.
. The whole park may need to be reticketed. Four nights a week, a ton of people just buy general admission seats and sit anywhere. Season ticket holders can't be happy. And many of them tell me they want the popular "Baseball Bingo" brought back. Keeps them watching the game!
. The seats in Section 102 behind home plate must be filled every night. They sit empty in full view of the center-field camera and make every TV and Internet broadcast look like the place is empty. Move the season ticket holders out of there. Put them up a few rows or over somewhere else. Sell those seats first. Amazing how many people in New York commented on the "empty ballpark" from a camera view of 8-10 rows.
. Long concession lines have lessened with the addition of hot dog and soda redemption stations on big nights. Solid move. But people are railing over long waits for french fries and ice cream (add a second ice cream stand on hot days!). People want chicken wings too but I get it; wings and fries are basically impossible to make and have standing, so they're made to order and that causes trouble. My emailers loved this season's move to more local food products and the new Craft Brew stand.
. The new team shop on the first-base side got huge plaudits but it had no Mets gear and no caps of other teams. Gotta have Blue Jays gear next season. And lots of people said they would pony up for rain ponchos too on a threatening night.