On Wednesday, Sept. 4, the Durham Bulls begin postseason play for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. But if the past holds true to form, relatively few people will show up to watch.
The Bulls' success these last seven seasons is perhaps a testament to the major constant during this span: manager Charlie Montoyo, who has achieved this record of success while having no control over who is on his roster—it's entirely up to the bosses of the parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays.
It's also a reflection of the talent the Rays have consistently had in their minor league system, from B.J. Upton to Evan Longoria to David Price to Jeremy Hellickson to Wil Myers to Chris Archer.
It's a remarkable accomplishment, to be sure, but why don't people show up for the playoffs?
In 15 postseason games played at Durham Bulls Athletic Park since 2007, a total of 45,060 people passed through the turnstiles—less than a single game at Yankee Stadium, in other words—for a per-game average of 3,004.
The biggest crowd in that span? Game 3 on Sept. 10, 2010, versus the Louisville Bats, when 5,306 people showed up. The following day saw a 47 percent drop, as 2,809 showed up. For the decisive Game 5 a day later, even fewer hardy souls appeared: 2,224.
As longtime fans and observers know, the last few regular season games often see crowds in excess of 10,000. Last month, on Aug. 24, the final Saturday of the regular season, the Bulls saw the third-largest crowd in the history of DBAP, with 11,536 in attendance. (The actor Rob Lowe, in town to move his child into Duke, threw out the first pitch.) But in other years, surges through the turnstiles late in the regular season have been followed by some dismal figures.
Sept. 11, 2007: 3,523 show up for Game 1 to see Evan Longoria in the lineup for the Bulls.
Sept. 9, 2009: 1,809 show up on an 80-degree day to see Jeremy Hellickson strike out 12 in 5.2 innings.
Sept. 8, 2011: 2,941 show up on an 81-degree day to see Chris Archer start for the Bulls.
This pattern isn't unique to the Bulls. In 2009, the year the Bulls won the International League Governors' Cup, the decisive Game 5 was played away to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre: There were 1,503 witnesses as the Bulls triumphed in a 3-2 victory that took four hours and 17 minutes to play.
Why the sudden apathy? It could be that fans know that the postseason teams bear little resemblance to the squads they watched all season. Every September, major league teams are permitted to expand their rosters to 40 players, which means all of the top players from AAA and often AA get a call-up.
Perhaps fans switch over when college football starts on Labor Day weekend. On the other hand, 8,054 people showed up Monday in Norfolk, Va., to watch the season's finale between the Tides and the visiting Bulls.
But Scott Carter, the Bulls' marketing director, says it's all about group sales: Simply put, people have to buy their own single-game tickets in the postseason, something they're not in the habit of doing. He says there are three basic groups of ticketholders.
"Season tickets set the baseline," he says. "Then group sales set the tone for the kind of night you're going to have. Then there are the walk-up sales, which are dictated by things like promotions and weather."
Carter says that playoffs are a tough sell everywhere in minor league baseball, but thanks to the Bulls' dominance this season, his promotion staff and the sales team had two weeks to put together a program for Wednesday and Thursday's games. Carter's job would have been easier had the games been scheduled for Friday, Saturday or Sunday, he adds.
On Wednesday, Sept. 4, the Bulls host a food truck festival. Eight popular food trucks will be present: Only Burger, Chirba Chirba, Parlez-Vous Crepe and more. Thursday's promotion is the club's Craft Beer Rodeo: a biergarten will be set up on the Diamond View I concourse. Fans can sample the brews and purchase $5 tokens to exchange for pints. Among the beers available: Bear Republic, CBC, Cottonwood, Carolina Brewery and Innis and Gunn.
"During the season, we cater to so many people other than diehard baseball fans," says Carter, who is experiencing his first postseason in Durham. "The playoffs bring in the hardcore baseball fans. From what I have been told, they are small but they are mighty."
And, with any luck, a few thousand fervent fans of food trucks and craft beer will turn out, as well.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Extra innings."