HILLARY SMITH: RailCats shaking up fan interaction

2013-02-03T20:30:00Z 2013-02-03T21:54:09Z HILLARY SMITH: RailCats shaking up fan interactionHillary Smith Times Columnist nwitimes.com
February 03, 2013 8:30 pm  • 

The RailCats front office staff has spent the last four Februarys preparing to welcome baseball fans in from the cold.

The team's fan fest, not unlike Sox Fest and the Cubs Convention, has filled ballrooms at the Star Plaza and the Diamond Club at U.S. Steel Yard for the last four winters.

The club has brought in former players, baseball dignitaries, and, last year, even former NBA player Cliff Levingston.

This year, the team is trying something new.

Instead of a winter rally around the RailCats, the front office is planning a caravan to visit different cities around the region with players and coaches just before spring training starts.

"We wanted to do something a little different," said Kevin Spudic, RailCats general manager. "I'm big about our community, and we wanted to be active in the community. We want this to be more than a one-time event, so we'll be doing a few things in different places with players and coaching staff.

"We're going to do something different this year. We're going to take a year hiatus with the fan fest. We'll be releasing the information later, and I can't give the full details, but we're looking to do a caravan into the marketplace."

Though it's always fun to start thinking about baseball in February, dashing in from the cold to plunge a hand into a baseball mitt, a change of pace is necessary for the RailCats.

Heading into their 11th season at U.S. Steel Yard and 12th overall, the RailCats need to shake a few things up to keep the non-season ticket holders coming. Their attendance numbers were down most of last season, taking a spike at the end, as the team's success didn't match up to prior years.

In the American Association, as in all of independent baseball, attendance and a team's winning record aren't mutually exclusive. But, a drop in one doesn't always help the other.

Two years ago, the RailCats averaged 3,218 fans per game and missed the playoffs on the last day. Last season, there was an announced average of 3,262 fans as the team was out of the postseason by mid-August. In 2010, the last year the RailCats played in the Northern League, the team averaged 3,395 fans in the stands.

Adjusting any standard operating procedure is a surefire way to make some noise. Allowing the opportunity to meet new players and shake hands with old faces can bring back some of those missing fans of the last couple of years.

On the whole, baseball attendance across Chicagoland was down, as the White Sox were in the pennant race for most of the season and still averaged 434 fewer fans per game than they did in 2011. The Cubs attendance likewise dropped 1,669 fans per game.

The change in fan attraction from February to April isn't to say that the RailCats Fan Fest is gone forever.

"The thing is, the fan fest is great because it bridges that wall in the winter," said Spudic, in his second year as general manager. "I'd like to kick something in closer to the season, tie it in right before spring training. So for now, we're looking at this."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach her at hillary.smith@nwi.com.

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