Slammers owners optimistic despite lower attendance
By Bob Okon Sun-Times Media September 8, 2013 9:50PM
Updated: October 10, 2013 6:17AM
Joliet Slammers attendance was down by more than 10,000 this year, but the new management has an upbeat outlook on next year.
The minor league baseball franchise has had three changes of ownership in the last four offseasons, but there won’t be a change this time, said Josh Schaub, who leads the group of owners finishing their first season.
“We’re extremely solvent,” Schaub said Friday. “We’re on solid footing. We’re getting ready for 2014. We’re all in.”
The Slammers also cut front office staff in midseason from 11 to seven. Schaub called it a “restructuring” and said it was not a financial move.
Attendance at Silver Cross Field for the Slammers, whose season ended Thursday, was 93,875, ranking ninth in the 13-team Frontier League, according to league records. The average attendance per game was just under 2,000.
That compares to 2012 attendance of 104,019 under the previous ownership, about 2,200 a game. The Slammers last year ranked eighth in attendance out of 14 teams.
A losing season on the field did not help this year. But even in 2011, when the Slammers won the Frontier League championship under a new owner and attendance was 108,610, management said that was not enough for the team to be profitable.
The attendance decline this summer might seem a disappointment, given the Slammers’ strategy of lowering food prices and offering assorted deals to attract more fans. But “we put more actual bodies in the ballpark this year than last year, believe it or not,” general manager Chris Franklin said.
Franklin said attendance counts can be misleading because they include tickets that may have been sold as part of a season package or group plan but were not used. He said the turnstile count at Silver Cross Field was higher this year, but he would not release the figure.
It’s obvious, however, that the turnstile count in 2012 was a lot lower than the attendance. When Joliet, which owns Silver Cross Field, worked on a rental agreement for the new owners, the attendance number used for last year was 70,000, which was the turnstile number, City Manager Thomas Thanas said.
Thanas also sees reasons to be optimistic after the new owners’ first season.
“They were very clear to me that this is a three-year plan,” he said. “They knew what they were walking into. They were walking into a brand that was extremely bruised when it went under the name of JackHammers.”
The JackHammers’ era started in 2002 with big crowds at Silver Cross Field. But the team suffered during the recession, and the JackHammers folded in 2010, owing money to many area businesses.
The city has tried to help out by lowering the rent at Silver Cross Field to reflect a less-robust business.
The rent for the JackHammers was $230,000, although they did not pay the rent during their last season. The rent was lowered to $150,000 for the next owners, and Schaub’s group renegotiated it down to $50,000 a year.
The city negotiated a variable rent, depending on attendance, but attendance would have to hit 110,000 before Joliet could begin collecting more money.
Meanwhile, the Slammers are busy making plans for next year, Franklin said. Owners have already met with the staff during two all-day meetings, working on plans to develop business during the offseason, he said.
“We’ve got the first year under out belt,” Franklin said. “For this group, we haven’t been in the building for a full year. I’m really excited for the offseason to put our plans into effect.”
The team is still working on its budget for next year, but Franklin said some of the four staff positions cut in midseason would be filled but on a seasonal basis.
Schaub said the new ownership has a positive outlook after the first season.
“All the bills are paid. We’re ready to go,” he said. “I think we’re on a steady footing for the long term.”