ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Jeb Stewart. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
Birmingham’s spirit as a comeback town has been well-reflected by the attendance last season at Regions Field, as the Barons set another record at the turnstiles.
The final attendance total was 444,639, making it second-highest regular season in franchise history behind the “Michael Jordan Year” of 1994 (467,867). 2015 also marked the third year in a row where the attendance topped the previous year.
Many people were skeptical about the Barons move downtown citing perceived safety concerns and the belief that people in suburbia would never set foot in downtown Birmingham. Since I have lived in the City for 19 of my 21 years here, I bought into the idea that the ballpark would succeed; but I also worried about ever convincing people from Hoover, Vestavia, Trussville, etc., to attend games downtown.
Baseball fans also figured that 2013 would be the high water mark for gate receipts at the new park. In fact, attendance did increase dramatically from 204,269, during the last season at Regions Park (formerly known as the Met), to the first year at Regions Field to 396,820. The real question was what would happen in years 2, 3, or 5, as the novelty of the ballpark wore off. These latter years would either prove or disprove the justification of building the ballpark.
No one predicted that attendance would increase for 3 straight years, but it has. In fact, the Barons drew 43,000 more fans this past year than 2013, which reflected roughly a 110% increase from Year 1 to Year 3.
In many ways, the attendance figures at Regions Field are simply a reflection of the greater renaissance we are all witnessing in our comeback town. Railroad Park is becoming a great entertainment district for the whole area, not just Birmingham; the old notion that suburbanites won’t come downtown is slowly eroding away.
There are many fans, who regularly attended games in Hoover, who still follow the Barons, but now there are many more people coming in from North Jefferson County, Birmingham proper, and students from UAB. I used to attend 1-3 games a year at the Met, and now I catch 15-20 games.
This is anecdotal, to be sure, but I met many people last summer who live in the area, but were attending their first game at Regions. One of my co-workers, who was always terrified of the imaginary forces lurking in downtown, finally broke down and attended a game this season. Before she did she cross examined me for 15 minutes about whether she should carry her gun, whether there were roving bands of criminals, and whether it was safe to park anywhere, etc.
She took her family and had a great time; she remarked to me later that she never realized Railroad Park is safe; and she agreed that the parking situation is actually better than the Met (due to the ease of leaving the ballpark without the Met’s frustrating bottleneck traffic). Because the ballpark is much closer to her home than Hoover she’s going to attend even more games this season.
The experience of attending minor league baseball games has changed a lot over the years. Not so many years ago, fans were only concerned about games, players, standings and the chase for a pennant. Attending a game now is somewhat more about baseball-related entertainment – 50 cent hot dogs on Tuesdays, $2 beers on Thursdays, and fireworks on Fridays – as opposed to the blissful sound of a bat smacking a ball. That’s a trade I’ll make, since it sure is nice to walk to downtown from Glen Iris to catch a ballgame.
Jeb Stewart is a lawyer at Austill, Lewis, Pipkin & Maddox, P.C., and a resident of Birmingham’s Southside. He is a board member of the Friends of Rickwood Field.
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David Sher is co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).