Troy Shockley is the sports editor for the Independent Record. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.
Professional baseball is leaving Helena.
When the Brewers announced their impending move to Colorado on Wednesday, it certainly came as a bit of a surprise -- but not a complete shock. The rumors of a move had been circulating for some time. And most had the ring of truth from the outset.
Even without those whispers, though, is it really hard to believe?
For nearly every summer since 1978, Kindrick Legion Field has been home to a minor league team. But for all that tradition, the Helena Brewers, consistently, have the lowest attendance in the Pioneer League. Last season, the eight teams in the league sold 616,688 tickets for 293 games. That’s an average of 2,105 fans per game.
Over 35 home dates, Helena averaged just more than half that figure, at 1,075.
Great Falls, in the same number of games, averaged 1,243. Ogden led the league in average and total attendance, with 124,200 people taking in 36 home games. That’s an average of 3,450 per night.
Before an argument of “Montana just isn’t into baseball,” can arise, note that second in the league attendance was Billings, with 2,819 tickets sold per game. Missoula averaged 1,979.
And last year wasn’t a fluke. In fact, it was actually continuing a short, ever-so-slight upward trend.
In 2015, Helena averaged 940 a game.
In 2014, it was 855.
In 2013 -- a year in which the team won the North Division championship -- 882. During Sunday afternoon games, it wasn’t unusual to see hundreds fewer than that average.
A decade ago while in Texas, I did an in-depth story on the history of Minor League Baseball in Abilene. Specifically, the question was why, despite several attempts, the city seemed unable to hold onto a team.
The end results of the study highlighted three key factors in an organization’s success in any location: A quality on-field product, good fan engagement, and beer sales.
The thing is, the Helena Brewers have all three.
The most lacking on that list is on-field product, though that can hardly be blamed on the local management or team. The entire reason rookie ball exists is to ready and prepare players to advance through the farm system. And while the number of wins in Helena last season wasn’t great, an inordinate number of players moved up from the Capital City to Single-A Wisconsin, which made a postseason run and finished fourth in a 16-team league.
Even still, Helena teams have reached the playoffs 13 times. They have won 10 division titles -- three since 2005 -- and four Pioneer League championships, the last of them in 2010.
But the Brewers’ top season attendance-wise was 1992, when 51,236 fans came through the gates. Missoula’s top season was 2012, with 89,912. Great Falls' was 114,603 in 2003, the same season in which Billings brought in 122,090.
No matter the club’s success, Helenans simply don’t go to the ballpark.
Looking at last year’s figures -- which, again, were higher than they’ve been in recent seasons -- Helena doesn’t merely rank low in the Pioneer League. While admittedly a smaller market than most, it is near the bottom of the entire minor league system.
There are 160 minor league teams. Of those, Helena’s 2016 attendance was better than only eight.
Six of those teams play in the Appalachian League, which averages just 1,052 fans a game. The other two are the New York-Penn League’s Batavia Muckdogs (811), and the Florida State League’s Lakeland Flying Tigers (334), who were playing in a temporary home stadium.
For some, baseball is an escape. A way to unwind. A setting at which to spend a summer evening. But for the organizations, baseball is a business. And a business cannot survive without customers.
So, yes, professional baseball is leaving Helena.
But, in truth, Helena didn’t leave it much choice.