Mark Emmert Fan Appreciation Night Highlights Success of Minor League Fandom

Mark Emmert may not appreciate the dynamics of minor league sports, but that doesn’t mean that minor league sports cannot appreciate him.

Last week, Emmert, NCAA president, testified in the antitrust case O’Bannon vs. NCAA. The case was brought by college players suing the NCAA for recognition that playing major college sports is a job, and alleging that they should be able to share in the financial rewards that are collected by colleges and universities through sports programs. The NCAA is arguing that college programs are amateur in nature, thus meaning that the players are not exploited by being kept out of the financial aspect of the programs.

In arguing that these college players are truly amateurs and not akin to being “professional” athletes, Emmert brought up a comparison to minor league sports. He argued that paying college athletes would tarnish their amateur status, which, according to Emmert, is quite problematic:

“To convert college sports into professional sports would be tantamount to converting it into minor league sports. And we know that in the U.S., minor league sports aren’t very successful either for fan support or for the fan experience.”

Hold up.

Minor league sports aren’t very successful in terms of fan support or experience?!

Clearly, Emmert has never to be a Lake County Captains game.

The Captains tried to change that Wednesday night, however, when they wasted no time in hosting Mark Emmert Fan Appreciation Night, taking satirical jabs at the outmoded policies used by the NCAA and gaining attention from news sources across the nation along the way. According to their press release, all fans who came to the game and do nothing but stay until the third inning received credit toward a future game in Lake County. Fans were also permitted to move from their seat location on their ticket to a new location of their choosing, subject to a one-inning waiting period, should they want a different view.

Poking at the new ruling giving student athletes the opportunity to “enjoy consuming food as they need it,” the Captains also awarded four college students with All-You-Can-Eat wristbands and tickets to future Captains games. The Captains also handed out “one-and-done” player basketball cards, as well as copies of “Undue Process—The NCAA’s Injustice for All” to select fans in attendance, and fans could have received “$100 handshakes” from a Captains Booster for wearing “generic” college jerseys that “may or may not correspond to a famous athlete who may attend the same college.”

The Captains went on to further invite Emmert himself to the game, though he did not seem to be in attendance.

All joking aside, the prompt attention that the Captains paid to Emmert and his comments only serve to emphasize the inaccuracy of the statement. According to SB Nation, more than 41 million people attended minor league baseball games last year, and Pat O’Connor, the president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, reported that more people attended minor league baseball games than attended NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLS games last year. When Major League Baseball suffered a 6.9 percent drop in attendance during the recession of 2008-2009, minor league attendance fell by only 2.9 percent.

So who is to say that minor league teams are unsuccessful for fan support and fan experience? If numbers tell the truth, that steady presence of fans in minor league baseball stadium seats certainly negates that point.

The Captains will host a pre-Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza tonight, which will easily draw a large crowd to Eastlake. Presale tickets were already in the thousands, demonstrating the draw that promotions have on the fanbase.

Further, the minor league baseball fan experience is about much more than physical numbers. The success of the fan experience and support comes from the team itself, and its ability to engage with fans and give them a product to which they feel connected. If there’s one thing Lake County does well, even if the team on the field seems to be struggling, it’s engaging their fans. In fact, a Captains game is nothing but fan support and fan experience.

From in-game promotions to themed nights to Captains’ traditions such as “The Captain Tony” and Launch-A-Ball, Lake County fans are nothing if not part of the game. Grover, the Captains’ in-game host, peruses the stands, regardless of the size of the crowd, working to engage every body in the seats to be part of the game. Every game also includes Skipper’s Fun Run, a chance for families and young children to sprint across the field with Skipper the mascot.

The Captains have had their fair share of unique promotions to draw fans throughout the seasons, including nationality-themed nights and events aligning with pop culture happenings, such as last season’s popular Sharknado Night, which also gained national attention. The Sharknado promotion was the first Captains’ game attended by Kaitlin Durbin, who credits the game as being a positive first fan experience. “The stadium was nice,” Durbin said, “And it was a pretty ideal baseball outing.”

Durbin said she was especially impressed with the “flying objects” thrown from the top of the stadium into the stands for fans in an attempt to replicate a shark-filled tornado.

It’s the little things.

It’s the little things that also impress out-of-towners attending Classic Park for the first – and possibly only – time. Bobbie Gabrenya, a college professor from Albany, New York, was visiting family in Cleveland on Tuesday and joined them at the Captains’ game for Canadian Baseball Night. She was chosen to take part in the in-game promotion, “Canadian Or Not,” and won a bag of Launch-A-Balls and other rewards to be redeemed around the area. Not only did Gabrenya describe the experience as being “a hoot,” she also noticed the little things that other fans were doing around her.

“There were kids giving other kids baseballs in the stands,” Gabrenya noted, saying that foul balls were not hoarded by one or two fans, but shared even amongst those in the same age group.

The ability to leave a minor league baseball game with a souvenir from the game or a player himself is much easier than it is at the Major League level, as well. Fans can easily approach players or coaching staff right after the game, or a bit before the team takes the field, to ask for autographs or to pose for pictures with potential future big league stars. And although not every player on a minor league roster is going to hold the name recognition that players such as Francisco Lindor or Clint Frazier possess, a young boy can still get his first look at, his first picture with, a professional baseball player without much struggle at all.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that minor league baseball doesn’t have the same big name draw that Major League games do, but that doesn’t mean the fans are any less involved. Minor League Baseball attracts diehard fans, both in Lake County and around the league. The book Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere by Lucas Mann details the fan experiences of lifelong Clinton LumberKing fans in Iowa, demonstrating that minor league fandom knows no bounds.

It is not isolated to Classic Park or Canal Park in Akron. Is is not meant only for those who cannot afford Major League games. As the Captains used Wednesday to demonstrate, minor league fandom is for the generics, for any and every fan who may or may not know everything there is to know about the sport; it is not limited.. And that, in and of itself, makes minor league sports and their fan experiences a success.

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