AFL the game's best-kept secret
Six-team circuit should be nirvana for real baseball fans
If you're a member of PETA, don't read this column. Because I'm about to beat a dead horse.
Anyone who knows me, ever listened to the old "Around the Minors" radio program (makes it sound old school, no?) or read things I've written in the past around this time of year, has a pretty good idea that the Arizona Fall League is one of my favorite things in all of baseball.
Too bad so many people know nothing about it. Scanning through box scores of AFL games in the past, and the attendance figures look more like bingo numbers. Last year, the average attendance league-wide was roughly around 270 people per game. There are people I know in Arizona who don't know about the Arizona Fall League.
Why is that? This isn't about assigning blame, because there's really none to be given. First and foremost, the league's main mission is to be a big developmental tool for all 30 Major League clubs. Whether or not fans come and check it out is almost beside the point. The league has been a huge success on that front. At last July's All-Star Game alone, 24 players in that game were alumni of the Arizona Fall League. Since the league's inception in 1992, there have been 106 All-Stars who once called the AFL their temporary home.
Because the purpose of the league is to get players ready for the big leagues, promotion/marketing isn't really part of the plan. The AFL has no budget for such things and isn't likely to get one with the 30 clubs footing the bill for the league. Filling seats isn't really of the utmost importance to them with the AFL.
To a certain extent, I can understand that. But I've heard time and time again that giving players opportunities to compete at high levels in higher-pressure atmospheres is a terrific thing for development. Now, there's something to be said about the relaxed learning environment of the AFL after a long season, but it's not like every player in the league was playing in front of a packed house every night from April through August. Putting a few more folks in the stands has to be a win-win situation, doesn't it?
"Obviously, the weather is so ideal and I don't know if you ever get too many chances to see that many players of that caliber on the field at the same time," said Pirates prospect Neil Walker, who should know considering he played in the league in 2005 and 2006. "I loved going out there. I was hoping to go out there again. Living out there for a month and a half, it's a nice getaway."
That's what baffles me. Who wouldn't want an AFL getaway? Usually the hardcore baseball fan ferrets out all the cool things to do, hidden diamonds and obvious stops. Yes, Spring Training tends to be the time baseball fans make trips for terrific access and good weather. And, truth be told, you won't see the Vladimir Guerreros of today if you go to Arizona now like you would if you went in March. But you may see the Vladdy, or Albert (he's an AFL alum, by the way) of tomorrow.
And it's dirt cheap. For a family pass -- that's for up to six family members -- it's only $105 for the entire six-week season. Are you single? Only $75 gets you to as many AFL games as you can handle for the season (hurry, though, the season pass is on sale only until Oct. 16).
Those are good options for folks who live in the area -- and there have to be ways to get more attention locally and get these people to games -- but if you want to take a Spring Training-like trip for a few days, single-game tickets are only $6 a pop for an adult. So cost isn't really an issue here.
Some people do get it. Ron Shandler, fantasy baseball guru over at BaseballHQ.com, has been running an annual Fantasy Baseball Symposium in Phoenix and it gets more popular every year. This year will be the 13th annual event and includes tickets to four AFL games. See, the fantasy geeks get it (before you get upset, I've long been one of the aforementioned geeks).
One thing that does cause a problem in terms of bringing in crowds is that so many of the games are afternoon games during the week. Not a problem for those doing an AFL vacation, but for the local folks who are working, that's an issue. The AFL has been addressing that, adding more night games every year. This season, there will be night games on Mondays for the first time in the league's history. That should help some.
But, in the end, all of that happens in a vacuum if people don't know about it. We try to do our part on MLB.com and MiLB.com, but that's not enough. I've never understood why the local media in Arizona doesn't do more than they do during the AFL, especially once the World Series is over. Do people really care about the Arizona Cardinals that much? Come on.
If that sounds like a challenge, maybe it is. The best players the Minor Leagues have to offer are all in one place for six weeks or so every autumn. They've got a lot of time on their hands, and they're happy to tell their stories. It's up to the media to listen and report on them.
Those of you who have made a haj to the AFL, kudos to you. Now, get the word out. Tell your friends. Plan a family trip back. Hop on blogs to spread the word. Think about the good you can do.
Why, some of you may ask, do I care so much? I've been covering the AFL pretty much every year since I came to MLB.com back in 1999. Every year, I see tremendous talent on the way up in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. Every year, I wonder where the real baseball fans are. If you come to an AFL game, your autographs will get signed, you'll be able to have conversations with players, you'll even be able to hear what the coaches have to say. It's that intimate.
Look, I'm not expecting miracles here. I don't think that suddenly the stadiums used in the AFL in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Surprise and Peoria are going to be jam-packed every day. But there's reason to believe it can be better than what there's been so far in the history of the league.
Last year, the league held it's first-ever "All-Star Game," something they called the "Rising Stars Showcase." It was held on a Friday night in Surprise. And it drew over 2,300 people. Amazing what a little publicity and good timing can do, and it was even on a night of a World Series game!
The AFL Championship Game, held on a Saturday afternoon, drew nearly 1,200. I have to think that with a little help, an average attendance somewhere in that neighborhood is doable. Believe you me, if the league could average 1,000 fans per contest, they'd be tickled pink.
One of us from MiLB.com, myself, Kevin Czerwinski and Lisa Winston, will be at AFL games for the entire season. So come on out, come on over and say hello. I promise, you won't be disappointed in what the league has to offer.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.