Earlier in this space, I wrote about getting a community to be convinced that a winning pro sports team matters. Let's move to a side issue of such a discussion, that of the minor league team in a town with major league teams.
The Buffalo Bisons are that team in Western New York. The Bisons are a member of the International League, and they've been going strong ever since the mid-1980's when Bob Rich and Rich Products bought the franchise.
The Bisons can't sell pennant races, since most people don't know much about the standings at a given moment. And they can't sell the opposing players, since most people have never heard of almost all of them. They can, however, sell baseball -- complete with a hot dog and a cold drink on a nice summer day or night.
My friend Glenn Locke used to musically say, "So it's root, root, root for the Bisons, if they don't win it's the same." In other words, enjoyment isn't measured on wins and losses, something that doesn't apply to the Bills or Sabres. I like to joke with Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News that he is the only non-Bisons employee who really follows how the team does.
Yet the Bisons are putting that theory to a severe test this season. Buffalo has gotten off to a horrible start in 2009. They won two games over the weekend, matching their victory output for the rest of the calendar year. The Bisons are 4-18, and are already 14.5 games out of first place in the standings. Buffalo's fans are rather spoiled when it comes to decent baseball, because the Cleveland Indians put a consistently good product here over the years. But the Indians left for Columbus last fall, and now the baby Mets are in town.
I went to the Bisons' game this afternoon. It was a sunny, 65-degree day -- a sweatshirt was more than enough for comfort -- and there was hardly anyone in the place, relatively speaking. I sat upstairs, which I do when possible, and acres of empty seats kept me company. It's tough to estimate the actual attendance when a 19,000-seat ballpark is that empty, but it sure didn't look like it crawled far into four figures, if at all. (The tickets sold count was 5,416.)
There's nothing like empty seats to flatten emotion at a sporting match. Today's game was quickly played in a little more than two hours, and the Bisons even won. But it sure didn't seem like an "event."
The unpredictable spring weather always is a challenge for the Bisons, and the actual crowds in the ballpark are sure to pick up once June arrives. Still, it's obvious that a little enthusiasm is missing in Coca-Cola Field, and I'm glad I'm not the person in charge of trying to get it back.