Rev effect hurts in Harrisburg

Editor’s Note: This story, which examines the Revolution’s effect on the Harrisburg Senators, originally ran in Thursday’s York Dispatch. Another story outlining the Revs’ attendance fortunes will run here Friday. 

It took close to four decades for York to land another professional baseball team after the York Pirates left town in 1969.

And with each year that passed, another obstacle got in the way of the effort.

Stadium location. Escalating costs. Political debate. All were roadblocks that were finally pushed aside when the York Revolution opened the doors to Sovereign Bank Stadium last June.

But one of the biggest obstacles along York’s journey to bring a pro baseball team back to its city rests about 25 miles north up I-83 — the Harrisburg Senators.

The Senators’ ownership blocked former York Mayor Charlie Robertson’s efforts to bring an affiliated team to York in the mid-1990s, and officials from Harrisburg and York spent years trying to negotiate an agreement, as mandated by Major League Baseball rules.

York finally got around the dispute between the two cities by welcoming the independent Revolution to town.

But now, with the Revolution enjoying success at the gate in its second year of existence, were Harrisburg’s owners right to fear a team infringing on its market? And how much is the return of pro baseball to York affecting the Senators?

The answer: quite a bit.

The Rev effect: According to an analysis of Eastern League and Atlantic League attendance figures by the Dispatch, since the Revolution started play in late April the Senators have averaged about 400 more fans a night when York is on the road.

Through Monday’s games, Harrisburg was averaging 2,153 fans overall. That average climbed to 2,569 in the 23 dates the Revolution played away. And the Senators average about 130 fewer fans a night (2,020) when York plays at home.

Given, there are several other factors that have contributed to the Senators’ attendance problems — a long overdue stadium renovation and poor marketing in the Harrisburg area are two large factors. But one Harrisburg official admits the Revolution and the Lancaster Barnstormers have constrained the Senators’ market.

“Common sense tells me that the teams in York and Lancaster have had an impact on the Senators,” said Harrisburg Chief Executive Officer Bill Davidson, whose company, National Sports Services, took over the operation of the Senators last October when Michael Reinsdorf bought the team for $13.25 million.

“Certainly if York and Lancaster didn’t have a baseball team, baseball fans in York and Lancaster would have visited Harrisburg, or in some cases Reading or Hagerstown.”

Davidson, who has worked in pro sports since 1982, added that because he has only operated the Senators since last October, he has limited knowledge of Harrisburg’s recent attendance history — pre-Lancaster and pre-York. But he admits the Senators have a large task ahead in expanding their audience.

Stadium upgrade: The biggest hurdle in that task will be updating Commerce Bank Park, which lacks the premium seating and luxury boxes found at Clipper Magazine Stadium in Lancaster or at Sovereign Bank Stadium.

The Senators have $16 million in place from the city of Harrisburg for renovations but are still waiting on $18.3 million from the state and Gov. Ed Rendell. The renovation will include a demolition of just about everything except for the baseball field itself, according to Davidson.

Davidson said he’s hopeful that the state funds will soon be approved in time for Harrisburg to complete its renovation for the 2009 season. But he realizes there are no guarantees.

“It’s kind of like having a great piece of property and a lousy house,” Davidson said of the Senators’ ballpark on City Island. “It’s not all the stadium, but it doesn’t have many of the attributes that a lot of people are looking for.”

Creating fans: Revolution General Manager Matt O’Brien has a different viewpoint on the Harrisburg/York relationship.

He believes fans who attend Revolution games might be more inclined to attend a Senators game in search of another fun baseball experience, rather than making a final choice between Harrisburg or York.

“We’re all just creating baseball fans,” O’Brien said recently. “We’ve probably developed as many fans for Harrisburg as we might have pulled away.”

O’Brien and Opening Day Partners President Jon Danos said there are very few differences in operating a successful affiliated minor league team as opposed to an independent team.

The main difference is that independent teams handle their own baseball operations, while the Senators’ players are paid and assigned to Double-A Harrisburg by the team’s parent club, the Washington Nationals.

“This is actually a great thing. We have more control over the performance of the team, for better or worse,” said Danos, whose company owns the Revolution and previously owned the affiliated Bowie Baysox. “Instead of sitting back and watching it all take place before us, we can push some buttons to attempt to improve the situation should the team not be performing well.”

Team performance in Harrisburg is high. The Senators are 54-41 and in second place in the Eastern League’s South Division.

But Davidson realizes success on the field alone won’t return the Senators to where the club was in the late 1980s and early 1990s — when Harrisburg routinely ranked near the top of the Eastern League in attendance. The club needs to improve its marketing.

“The Senators have a very strong core baseball audience and our task and our challenge is to expand that audience,” Davidson said. “Our plan is to let the market know there’s a game and let them know there’s an opportunity for family entertainment.”

— Reach Jeffrey A. Johnson at jjohnson@york dispatch.com or 505-5406. Read his Revolution blog, “Revolution Rumblings,” at revolutionrumblings.word press.com.

*Fruit race photo by Randy Flaum.

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6 Responses

  1. I, for one, am glad that the Revs and Barnstormers are sticking it to the Senators at the gate. Harrisburg bullied York in it’s efforts to get an affiliated team for years.

    Before the Revs came around, I often pitched this idea (not to anyone who could do anything about it, just to anyone who would listen):

    York should have been granted permission by Harrisburg to have a team in the New York-Penn League.

    You can kind of see it with the Revs, but Yorkers tend to want to stay home more on weeknights when school is still in session. The NY-Penn season doesn’t start until the middle of June, so that problem is solved.

    Also, the impact on Harrisburg gate wouldn’t be all that great. The NY-Penn league only plays around 75 games a year. Considering that the Harrisburg and York teams would be on the road half the time, there would likely be less than 20 conflicting dates with both teams at home.

    The New York Penn League is made of players largely straight out of college, so the Senators could still draw the hardcore York fans who really want to see better baseball being played.

    Now, because they wouldn’t budge, Harrisburg has to compete with the Revs (not to mention the ‘stormers) on twice as many nights because of the longer season.

    The Senators also have to try to draw crowds with their largely anonymous “prospects”, while a York or Lancaster fan can see Carl Everett, Shea Hillenbrand, Matt LeCroy, Dave Veres, Edgardo Alfonzo, Eric Dubose, Dave Veres, Jason Phillips,
    Jay Gibbons, Nook Logan, Alex Sanchez, Frank Castillo, Randall Simon, etc. on any given night.

    I can see the argument from Harrisburg that the Senators feature players on the rise, rather than players on the decline, but they rarely will have more than 2-3 future major league regulars on the roster (with the exception of the mid-90’s Cliff Floyd, Rondell White, Curtis Pride, etc. team).

    The Harrisburg ballpark has, quite literally, the least charm of any minor league facility that I’ve ever attended. It’s fitting that the spring training scenes for one of the “Major League” movies were filmed there, because it feels like a team’s bare-bones training facility.

    I hadn’t been to a Senators game for a few years, even before the Atlantic League came to the area, because Reading has such a vastly superior atmosphere that it was worth the extra drive.

  2. I enjoy the York Staduim, Revs Baseball but I will make my case for everyone to still enjoy watching baseball in Harrisburg.

    I was in Harrisburg this past Friday night. There was maybe 3,000. I agree the stadium is outdated. Reinsdorf has a lot of work ahead to bring that stadium up to date. But you can’t beat the back drop for a staduim. (Who else can say they have a ball park on an island.) May flies are bad early on but I can live with that.

    Talent wise, you can’t go wrong. Bowie was in town so you got to see….Matt Wieters (O’s #1 Top Prospect) Chris Tillman (#4 Top Prospect) Nolan Reimold (#5 Top Prospect) Chorye Spoone (#10 Top Prospect) For Harrisburg you have Jordan Zimmerman (#7 Top Prospect) Justin Maxwell (#9 Top Prospect)

    The only way you are going to see young talent that one day will be a major league star, are the ones who get drafted and don’t sign at first and come to Indy Ball to keep loose. Case in point JD Drew (St. Paul), Stephen Drew (Newark) to name a few.

    Better baseball on the field. These guys want to play. We all know and can see that some of the guys in the Atlantic League don’t care about running hard, making aggressive fielding plays, they are just hanging on.

    Jeff, you think York will ever get affiliated ball back?

    Enjoy America’s Pasttime, No Matter Where It’s At.

  3. The walk from the parking lot to the ballpark in Harrisburg is nice enough, but during the game you’re just facing treetops beyond the outfield wall, if I recall.

    Some of the mayflys at City Island are mutants, probably straight out of the cooling tower at TMI. I remember one game I attended a few years ago where basically everyone had to clear out when it got dark, because the bugs were such a nuisance.

    There are still a lot of “maybes” and “ifs” when you’re talking about prospects, no matter where they rate in an organization. I just took a peak at a Baseball America list of Orioles #1 prospects of the past 10-12 years and there are as many Atlantic Leaguers (Falkenborg, Ryan Minor, Keith Reed) as major league regulars on the list. And that’s the #1 guys, not just the Top 10’s.

    Granted, Baltimore’s not the fairest example.

    I do agree that we should support and enjoy local baseball. I’ve had an unscratchable itch since the Revs have been on the road.

    I just resent Harrisburg’s heavy-handedness for all of those years when York wasn’t allowed to have a team. There were a lot of nights where a baseball-loving teenager like myself (at the time) would have killed to have had a team, any team, in town.

  4. The chances of an affiliated team in York are very slim as long as the Senators are around — which will be at least 29 years, according to the agreement Reinsdorf and the city of Harrisburg has.

    If attendance ever started to suffer in York, the popular model for many indy league teams is to switch to a shorter season indy league. Much like Atlantic City did when it went to the Can Am League.

    That’s something I could see years from now.

  5. I concur with Atlantic League Fans opinion on the York-Harrisburg issue. When the city took over the Senators, it was Harrisburg mayor-dictator Steve Reed who played hardball with the 25 mile home plate to home plate rule. If memory serves correct, there was talk of putting the stadium in Springettsbury Township right at the 25 mile limit just to stick it to Reed. Now Harrisburg is stuck with a horrible stadium, a parent team that might not win a world series in my lifetime, and all the wretched insects that make watching a game at city island an experience only a frog could enjoy.

  6. As a Barnstormer fan, I would say the Senators have a long way to go in “game presentation” to match the Revs or the Stormers.

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