Stephanie Marquez / Rivard Report
Although the San Antonio Missions boast the second-best record in their first year in the Pacific Coast League, the opportunity to see more top talent playing for a contending team isn’t drawing more fans to Nelson W. Wolff Municipal Stadium on the city’s West Side.
Despite the Missions’ move to the highest level of minor league baseball – Triple-A – and affiliation with the Milwaukee Brewers, the club’s attendance is similar to that of recent years at the Double-A level. Through the first 44 home games of the season at the All-Star break, the team was averaging 30 fewer fans per game (4,855) than it did through 67 games in what was a banner year for attendance in 2018.
San Antonio ranks 12th in the 16-team PCL in average attendance per game, with six sellouts. The top eight teams average more than 6,000 fans per game. Still, Missions President Burl Yarbrough isn’t discouraged, saying the team could see as many as 12,000 more fans come through the gates this season if the current pace continues through season’s end.
“Last year was the best year we’ve had in 15 years going to back to 2003,” Yarbrough said. “So we were following a very big year. We didn’t know if we could continue that trend this year, but so far we have.”
Wolff Stadium has 6,200 fixed seats, with capacity for another 3,000 on the grass berm behind the left field and center field wall.
On the field, the Missions’ inaugural Triple-A season has been a success. Their 54-36 record leads the PCL’s American Southern division, and San Antonio is 30-15 at home. Those attending games at Wolff Stadium have seen dozens of players with major league experience take the field for the Missions and visiting clubs.
But thus far, the step up in competition also has done nothing to help the Missions’ efforts to build a new stadium closer to downtown, where the franchise can tap into the growth of the urban core and the robust tourism industry.
“We still are working toward that goal,” Yarbrough said. “It’s a long road, and we’re going to continue until we get something put together.”
The Missions lease Wolff Stadium from the City and have made it clear they don’t have the funding to build a new stadium on their own. They would need help from the taxpayers of San Antonio and Bexar County.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg has said he is opposed to spending money on a new stadium for the Missions closer to downtown because the City has other budget priorities.
Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras said nothing has changed in terms of how the mayor and the City view the idea of a new ballpark for the Missions.
“I know the Missions have been looking at a variety of locations and they’ve been keeping us informed about what they’re looking at,” Contreras said.
“The mayor has been very clear about his belief that our city is a major league city, and his focus would be — if we’re going to do anything — it would be really focused on major league [sports]. That being said, he has said if they bring a development deal that has other really important features to it that fit with our city priorities, he’ll take a look at it.”
The City and Elmore Sports Group, the California-based company that owns the Missions, combined to spend $1.3 million in upgrades to Wolff Stadium this past offseason. Most of that money was spent on clubhouse renovations and new batting cages beneath the stands to bring the stadium more in line with what is expected for Triple-A stadiums.
Earlier this season, Ballpark Digest ranked Wolff the worst stadium in Triple-A baseball a year after rating it one of the worst at the Double-A level. The stadium opened 25 years ago for the 1994 season.
“The bottom line is we’re doing our best to take care of it, but it’s one of the older stadiums around and everybody has passed us by,” Yarbrough said. “I think if you looked at the state of Texas at the minor league ballparks here, we would rank on the bottom. Unfortunately, that’s where we are.”
The site of Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star game, El Paso’s Southwest University Park, is the home of the PCL’s El Paso Chihuahuas, who average more than 7,400 fans a game. The ballpark, which opened in 2014, has 7,500 fixed seats and a total seating capacity of up to 9,500.
Yarbrough looks to El Paso and several other PCL cities such as Charlotte and Nashville as examples of what can happen when a team continues to fight for a new stadium. Yarbrough said the idea of a new minor league baseball stadium in El Paso was considered dead two times in the nearly 10 years it took to get it built.
Late last year, Nirenberg told the Rivard Report he wanted to update a pro sports study done nearly a decade ago evaluating where San Antonio stands in terms of its ability to attract and support more professional sports franchises such as an NFL or major league baseball team.
The City issued a request for proposals to conduct the study and received numerous responses by the May 31 deadline, Contreras said.
Contreras said City officials have been focused on getting through the budget process and will revisit the sports study once that is done.
However, the study will not include anything about the feasibility, benefits, or drawbacks of a minor league baseball park located closer to downtown, Contreras said.
“We’ve had a lot of great progress in our city and we want to kind of measure that and show that to the sports world,” Contreras said. “So they can see what we know, that our city is a great place for professional sports. We think that the sports study will reveal that.”