A hundred years from now Augusta GreenJackets historians (it'll take six of them to handle the current role held by Bill Kirby) will look back on Saturday, May 26, 2012 as a glorious day in minor league baseball. Officially (the note at the bottom of the box score proves it) the recorded attendance for the game was 5,931 fans - a Lake Olmstead Stadium record, breaking the previous mark of 5,858 set exactly six weeks earlier on another big Saturday night at the ballpark.
In fact, future historians will look back on the first half of the 2012 season as the year fans inexplicably started pouring into Augusta's 17-year-old stadium in record numbers. After experiencing per game attendance growth in just one of the previous three seasons, the GreenJackets are off to a dynamite 2012. Through the first 23 games of the season, the stadium has had five games of 5,000 fans or more. That means (on paper) the stadium has seen more 5,000+ nights in the last 23 home games than the previous 133 home games. Impressive.
The problem with so many 5,000+ attendance games is they're coming in a stadium that, according to the team's own website, has a seating capacity of 4,822. That number includes just under 1,000 box seats, 830 reserved seats, 2,500 general admission seats and seating for 500 at the party pavilion down the right field line. I was told by at least two people with knowledge of the stadium and the team that it is physically impossible to fit 5,858 people in Lake Olmstead Stadium. So how could this possibly happen? Allow me to explain.
First, this isn't a suggestion of corruption or foul play. It's more about the policies of attendance reporting. My intention here is not to expose any wrongdoing or scandal but to educate my readers on some misconceptions of minor league attendance numbers and the difference between reported paid attendance and actual people at games.
When a minor league team (and often many college sports programs) report attendance numbers, they're reporting the official paid attendance - the number of tickets the team sold to the game regardless of whether they were used or not. This is the policy explained to me by four executives who have either past or current experience as general managers in minor league baseball.
So a team may have a big promotion planned for a specific night (postgame fireworks seem to be a big draw in Augusta these days) and sell 5,000 tickets. But if a drenching downpour with lightning and thunder rock the ballpark a half hour before the game and only 1,000 of those ticket buyers actually show up, the official attendance reported for that night's game is still 5,000.
Fortunately for the GreenJackets, weather hasn't been much of an issue this year. But it does appear that the front office staff is selling more tickets than previous seasons. Group sales have certainly helped. Programs within the local school systems also have helped elevate sales. Example: a reading program introduced by the team includes awarding a ticket to a child who reads a certain number of books. While a few thousand children may earn the prizes and get the tickets, only a few hundred may cash in and attend the game. But those unused tickets still get counted toward paid attendance. The same goes for all season ticket holders, regardless of whether they show up.
So that's why last Saturday the team broke the stadium's single-game record with a paid attendance of 5,931 despite being more than 1,000 over capacity. What was the actual number of people in attendance? Who knows? It was certainly crowded on a night when the reading book program and postgame fireworks filled the ballpark. But a record-breaking crowd? Hardly. Entire rows were empty down the left field line and in the reserved seating just below the press box. Just from me eyeballing it, I'd say there were certainly fewer people there than the 5,858 reported six weeks ago and absolutely fewer people at either game than three seasons ago when John Smoltz made a rehab appearance on a Thirsty Thursday (reported paid attendance 5,828). In my opinion, the Smoltz appearance drew the largest actual crowd ever for a Lake Olmstead Stadium game.
The largest attendance (probably both reported and actual) came in 1991 when David Justice made a rehab appearance at Heaton Stadium (the old ballpark replaced by Lake Olmstead Stadium in 1995). Though I wasn't around for that game, I'm told the reported attendance of 6,231 included fans smushed into every nook and cranny of a park with a listed capacity of 3,600-3,800.
And before some of my more opinionated readers start chirping in the comments section about how this impacts the need or lack thereof for a new downtown ballpark, let me add something. In my opinion, attendance has nothing to do with whether a town or team needs a new stadium. The same people who would try to use poor attendance numbers to say, "Look, no one's going to that dinky, old, rundown ballpark. We need a new one." are the same who would look at record numbers and say, "We've outgrown the old ballpark. We need a new one!"
One final, unrelated thought: the GreenJackets are on the road this week with a chance to break a South Atlantic League record that has nothing to do with attendance. The team, a dismal 13 games out of first with a 21-28 record and current three-game losing streak, has managed to play seven consecutive games without committing an error. One more game of error-free ball tonight in Lexington, Ky. would break the league record set in 1994 by the Charleston (W. Va.) Wheelers.
The GreenJackets will return home a week from today, June 5, for a three-game series with the Greensboro Grasshoppers.