JOHNSTOWN – Even with the Johnstown Mill Rats chasing a playoff spot in their final regular-season homestand of 2021, the club ranked last in the 16-team Prospect League in total attendance – 6,214 fans – and in average per game at 270.
By comparison, the league average was 860 as of Monday, with two teams – the Clinton LumberKings and the Chillicothe Paints – drawing in more than 2,000 fans per contest, according to information posted at pointstreak.com.
The disappointing level of interest came about from a culmination of factors beyond the first-year team’s control and steps that Mill Rats officials say, in retrospect, could have been done better.
“It has been a far more challenging and difficult year than we anticipated,” said Bill Davidson, a co-owner of the team. “That’s for sure. Attendance has been slower than we had hoped.
“Early on, the team struggled on the field, but that’s since been corrected. It has been a more difficult slog than we anticipated. That’s for sure.”
Johnstown Community and Economic Development Director John Dubnansky thinks “the first season went well,” but acknowledged improvements can be made.
“Obviously, it’s just like having any new business start up with the Mill Rats,” Dubnansky said. “There were a few bumps in the road that we hit – just getting the team acclimated within the stadium and just them being new to the area, working on making their connections with sponsors and things like that. It’s just something that takes some time.
“So, once again, it’s just like any new business. It takes some time to really get to the point where you’re really living at a high level on all operations.”
City officials and the Mill Rats undoubtedly expected better turnout for games at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point.
“I was surprised that in launching a new brand that there wasn’t stronger attendance out of maybe a curiosity standpoint, maybe from the fact there’s a new baseball team in town, there’s new summer entertainment,” Davidson said.
“But I don’t think people exactly knew who the Mill Rats were and what they were.”
But Davidson emphasized that “I don’t blame the community at all for where our attendance is, not in the least. It’s our job to make Mill Rats games a place that people want to be. We just have to do a better job at that than we have.”
Despite the struggles of the inaugural season, the Mill Rats, who signed a five-year deal with the option of a five-year extension to play at the city-owned Point, plan to return in 2022.
“We have every intention of being back,” Davidson said. “I’ll say it a different way – we have no intention of not returning. This was an incredibly tough year. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch this team, buy equipment, obviously operate the team this year. To walk away from that investment now is not very attractive. We believe there are better days ahead. We certainly would like to see some local financial partners join our organization. That’s kind of been our objective from the beginning – whether that’s in a minority role or majority role.”
Impact of pandemic
The Johnstown Collegiate Baseball League, which sends teams to the historic annual All American Amateur Baseball Association National Tournament, already existed in the city.
The Mill Rats displaced the JCBL as the Point’s primary baseball tenant, requiring the established league to play many games at Roxbury Park, while still getting a good amount of contests in at Sargent’s.
The new team marketed itself as something different with in-game entertainment and promotions to accompany the baseball, charging $8 for general admission tickets and $10 for reserved, plus an extra dollar for online purchases if applicable. The JCBL charges $5 at the Point and no admission cost at Roxbury.
“We came to Johnstown because we thought it had a good facility, it was a good market and frankly the region was underserved from a baseball/entertainment standpoint,” Davidson said.
“Not from a baseball standpoint, because the JCBL provides quality baseball. But, from a focus on entertainment in addition to baseball, we thought there was an opportunity there and that Johnstown was underserved as a market and a region. and I still believe that to be the case. We just have to do a better job.”
A name-the-team contest was held. The Mill Rats collected and donated more than 500 winter coats, working in conjunction with Greater Johnstown Elementary School.
But, looking back, Davidson said the organization failed to get good “community penetration,” which was followed up by the team starting poorly, going 7-22 in the first half of the season.
Davidson and Mill Rats general manager Brennan Mihalick said the club faced a challenge when trying to sell group tickets, get sponsors and line up a promotions schedule during the financial uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic this past winter and spring.
“In retrospect, I think it would have been different if we could have made a stronger connection throughout Johnstown, Cambria County and the Greater Johnstown region, which we weren’t really able to do because of the COVID restrictions that were in place at the time,” Davidson said.
The team and league are also adjusting to the new way people spend their leisure time, as a result of the pandemic, with sporting events, live shows and other forms of entertainment seeing drop-offs in attendance. The Prospect League’s year-to-date attendance is about the same as in 2019 – but down from 2018, when it averaged 1,025 per game.
Johnstown is also part of a regional trend within the Prospect League.
Although Chillicothe is a top draw, the other teams in the Ohio River Valley division – the Champion City Kings (345 per game), West Virginia Miners (305 per game) and Mill Rats – are the bottom three teams league-wide in attendance.
Chasing a playoff spot
The Mill Rats are currently playing a four-game home stand – Tuesday through Friday – against West Virginia.
The games are important because, if Johnstown can hold on to first place in the Ohio River Valley’s second-half-of-the-season standings, the club will qualify for the Prospect League playoffs. Mihalick hopes the series can generate some enthusiasm to build on.
“We’re making an effort this week just to get people in to see the game,” Mihalick said. “And we’re confident that once they see what the Mill Rats have to offer between the baseball and the entertainment, we know that they’ll come back and catch more games – whether later this week or next season.”
Mihalick believes the team and organization has improved over the course of the summer.
“Thanks to some roster moves and players really stepping up their game, I think the on-field product has been really great, especially lately,” Mihalick said. “And the same can be said for our in-game entertainment. We’ve been expanding the area that we do that, and getting the fans more involved with the game and really kind of hitting our stride.”
Going forward, Mihalick said, the Mill Rats should be able to attract more fans to games, but did not set any specific attendance target that would be considered the benchmark for success.
“We have the luxury that we can really adapt our model to whatever the market is feeding us, so there’s not a make-or-break number,” Mihalick said. “If there are 5,000 seats in the stadium, we want 5,000 people. Now, obviously, that’s not going to happen. But we want to draw more and more people. There’s no make-or-break number, no set goal.”
Financially, as the campaign draws to a close, Davidson and Dubnansky said the Mill Rats are square on the payments they owe the city. The team rents the Point for $15,000 per season.
“We invoice them monthly and they pay monthly,” Dubnansky said. “So yeah, we’re up to date. … It’s just during the season – June, July, August.”
Davidson added: “We are current per our agreement with the city. There has not been any modifications to the agreement that we signed last fall. We haven’t asked for any modifications. and they haven’t offered any. I don’t even think it’s a topic.”
‘Part of the community’
Sargent’s Stadium will look different at the start of the 2022 season than it did at the beginning of calendar year 2021.
A new video scoreboard, shade screens and picnic tables have already been installed. City officials expect to get new lights and turf in place within the next few months.
“We’re going to have a really nicely redone stadium in place for the 2022 season, which I think will help in attracting more people to the games,” Dubnansky said. “I know I’ve attended several games myself this season, the last one being last Friday, and it was a really nice crowd in the stadium last Friday. It’s nice to see.”
Dubnansky said that having events such as Mill Rats games is “vital to us growing as a city” and that he expects a “bigger, better season” next year.
Attempting to make the necessary organizational improvements will begin immediately after the 2021 campaign concludes.
If the pandemic does not flare up again, leading to more shutdowns and distancing, expectations are that group sales will improve. And, if the economy is stabilized, then more sponsors might have money to spend than earlier this year.
The Mill Rats also want to get a full promotional schedule announced before the start of the season so fans can make plans in advance.
Mihalick said improving relationships between the Mill Rats and local youth baseball organizations would help generate more interest.
“I think the really key component is our players,” Mihalick said. “Kids look up to these guys. They’re playing in college. Some of them are going to go on to play professional baseball. So it’s getting our players to interact with those kids, and develop a relationship and making them feel not just like the hometown team but also a part of the community. We want the kids in Little League to have a favorite player and want to grow up to be like them.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5056.