By Paul Gattis
The home page of the Rocket City Trash Pandas on Monday told the story poignantly.
The website of the minor league baseball team, a day after the scheduled end of the season, promoted a “Beer & Wine Fest” that will take place Oct. 9 at Toyota Field. The story is that while the Rocket City Trash Pandas are a professional baseball team, the Rocket City Trash Pandas are also a business.
And business goes on even when the season ends.
“It’s non-stop,” said Lindsey Knupp, the team’s vice president for marketing, promotions and entertainment. “We’ve definitely got a lot of things on the horizon and things that we’re thinking about. What worked? What do we want to keep? And what are new ideas and new things that we can add.”
For now, though, the baseball season has ended and even as the Trash Pandas ultimately are a business, baseball is at the heart of who they are.
It was an unexpected ending. The team last played in Madison on Sept. 15, a 4-0 victory over Pensacola. The final four scheduled games, however, were canceled due to positive COVID tests within the team and contact tracing. The Trash Pandas finished 54-56 and missed the playoffs.
At the gate, however, the Trash Pandas averaged 5,746 fans per game in paid attendance, which led all of Double-A baseball – the level at which the Trash Pandas play. With a stadium capacity of 7,500, that means that more than 76 percent of Toyota Field was occupied when the Trash Pandas were playing.
Again, compared to peer teams, no team averaged more fans per game than Rocket City in its inaugural on-field season.
For Knupp, though, 24 percent of Toyota Field was not occupied when the Trash Pandas were playing.
“For a lot of teams, it’s great,” she said. “For me, who is a perfectionist, it’s OK.”
For the season, the Trash Pandas had a paid attendance total of 271,340 – a number that was lower than expected when the season began. The team lost 12 home dates due to rainouts and COVID-19. Projecting out that average attendance over those 12 dates and the Trash Pandas could have brought in another 68,952 fans.
The hope is for more fans in 2022, assuming the normal 140-game schedule is restored in minor league baseball. The minor league schedule allotted just 120 games in 2021 due to the late start because of COVID concerns.
Still, business is good. The team paid more than $473,000 to the city of Madison to wipe out leftover debt from 2020 when there were no games at all. The Trash Pandas had until the end of the year to make that payment and has already cleared its ledger.
“2021 and the baseball season has really been probably more than we expected,” Madison Mayor Paul Finley said. “Yes, it’s been financially strong and we’ll eventually know how strong that is (at the end of the year).
“But to me, what we very quickly realized was it’s brought additional quality of life not just to Madison but the entire Tennessee Valley. What we see are smiling faces and happiness.”
Under terms of the 30-year agreement that brought minor league baseball to Madison, the Trash Pandas owe the city a payment of at least $1 million each year from revenue generated at Toyota Field – which the city built for $46 million.
And to that end, business goes on after the balls and bats are put away. In addition to the Beer & Wine Fest next month, there will be the “Trash Dash” road race Saturday, a Trunk or Treat Halloween Movie Night on Oct. 30 and the Christmas light show and Winter Wonderland will return Nov. 12 and run through Jan. 3 as well as a list of Christmas parties in the stadium club.
The Big Ol’ Ballpark Fair is also expected to return in the spring. And discussions are ongoing about bringing more concerts to the stadium.
Finley said he was “thrilled” with the baseball attendance numbers. And the non-baseball events the team held in 2020 were how it met its financial obligations to the city in 2021.
The 2022 baseball season figures to be less chaotic, too, as minor league baseball has already released the schedule and Knupp said the team will have opportunities available that were not in its first season – player bobbleheads, for example, since the team will now have a history with fan favorites.
And the minor league baseball experience will be better, Knupp said, if pandemic restrictions are eased.
“So hopefully we can do a lot more from the beginning of those — first pitches, parades on the field, kids out there for the national anthem, high-five tunnels and dance performances in the outfield, those are all the things that we want to be able to do,” Knupp said. “And the community really gets to feel like they’re part of it and they’re experiencing on the game day.”