The $64 million Coolray Field that Gwinnett County built for the minor league baseball team offers wonderful views and a friendly staff.
It also feels extremely roomy. Which is what happens when about 9,700 of the stadium’s 10,400 seats are empty.
The team, owned and run by the Atlanta Braves, just won its division. (The first home playoff game is Friday.) But business is off. Fans are scarce and growing more so.
The team easily has the lowest attendance of any of the 30 AAA teams in the International and Pacific Coast leagues. Officially it’s averaging about 3,160 fans a game, 17 percent less than a year ago. Substantially fewer actually show up for the seats they paid for.
“It’s frustrating,” said North Johnson, the Gwinnett Braves’ general manager.
But Johnson insisted it is not so frustrating that the Braves would contemplate cutting out of town any time soon.
(Even if the Braves wanted to, he said, the team has 12 years left on its lease with Gwinnett and pulling out early would trigger stiff penalties.)
“We are not going to leave,” he said. “We are here for the long haul.”
To hear him talk, that’s pretty much the only option the Braves aren’t considering.
Even the big boy Braves team downtown is hurting for fans, of course. Bloodless corporate finagling drained that team of personality and some fan love, I suppose. But the intown Atlanta Braves will get a shot at redemption next season when the team moves to Cobb County, where the public is funneling about $400 million toward the new SunTrust Park.
The Gwinnett Braves apparently don’t have the same reset button.
In 2009, the farm team moved from Richmond to north Gwinnett near the Mall of Georgia. Several times since then, the AJC and others have reported on sinking fan attendance at a facility built with lots of public money by supposedly fiscally conservative county commissioners. Dropping attendance and falling parking revenue ($5 a car) mean the county has to use other money to cover the stadium's debt payments.
The big question is what to do about it.
Johnson hopes he can convince the county to air some Gwinnett Braves games on the government local-access TV channel and maybe mention upcoming games in government newsletters.
He's also considering a name change to better distinguish the team from the Major League one downtown. So far he hasn't liked any of the ideas he's come up with, such as using the county's namesake, a signer of the Declaration of Independence: The Gwinnett Buttons.
Johnson, a towering guy in his 50s who has spent much of his life working the business side of minor league teams, insists he’s tried just about everything the law will allow to attract more fans.
(Discount beer nights like “Thirsty Thursdays” are difficult because of tight Gwinnett alcohol rules, he told me.)
He’s tried every variety of advertising he can think of. He’s done social media barrages. Geo-targeted ads that pop up when you’re roaming online. Pocket schedules put out at convenience stores and restaurants. Bobble-head nights and fireworks. Star Wars Night were locals come dressed as movie characters. Superhero Night where staffers also dress up. He’s sent “Chopper,” the team’s costumed 6’5” groundhog mascot, to more than 200 appearances this year alone.
And still, attendance keeps falling like a pop-up foul ball on its way back to earth.
Which doesn’t square with an early consultant’s report that claimed Gwinnett offered “one of the strongest markets in the country to support a minor league baseball team.”
Maybe the consultants didn’t give enough weight to the hardships Johnson said the team faces. Local TV and radio stations and newspapers don’t cover the team much, he said. It’s tough to have a minor league team in the same market as a major league team with the same name.
At first, Braves officials blamed much of the slide on the recession. But as the economy improved, attendance sank more.
Johnson said he thinks the continuing problems also are a sign of bigger societal and suburban shifts.
Busy and tired
Families are already busy and tired after long work days, fighting traffic and shuttling kids to activities five days a week, he said.
He also thinks the team is hurt by too much competition in the entertainment business: other pro and college sports, high school football, Lake Lanier, Stone Mountain and (I can hear the “dang it” in his voice) free concerts and movie nights in the revitalized centers of Gwinnett’s cities.
“It’s hard to compete with free,” Johnson said.
It’s weird to think of a lively area being bad for business.
I asked Johnson if the Gwinnett Braves make a profit. He said something about that depending on what the accountants tell him, then said the team has positive cash flow.
Financially, he said, “We are not in danger by any stretch of the imagination.”
The most crucial reason for being in Gwinnett is that makes it easier and quicker for the Atlanta Braves to work on player development and to call up players from the farm team.
“The Braves would love to have this team make more money,” he said. But “we are just one cog in this great big giant machine of the Atlanta Braves.”