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Attendance Lagging, Chiefs Enter Final Series Eyeing 2022 Rebound

Peoria Chiefs general manager Jason Mott says he anticipated lagging attendance in 2021 and he's optimistic larger crowds will return to Dozer Park next season.
Peoria Chiefs general manager Jason Mott says he anticipated lagging attendance in 2021 and he's optimistic larger crowds will return to Dozer Park next season.

As the Peoria Chiefs finish off this season with a sponsored “fan appreciation week,” general manager Jason Mott is optimistic this year’s lagging attendance won't extend into 2022.

“We’re trying to end it on a good note,” Mott said of the six-game final home series against Cedar Rapids that begins Tuesday at Dozer Park. “Obviously, it’s been a challenging year. We only had 10 weeks to plan for the season, so a lot of the stuff that I think people get accustomed to just wasn't going to happen this year. But I'm excited for ’22.”

Mott said this was always going to be a difficult year, after the entire 2020 season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic that he believed would be over by now.

“I thought that once we opened, that it would kind of start to get back to normal, and that's just not where we're at,” he said. “Our hope is we get back to normal in ’22, everybody gets healthy over the winter and we continue to push along, because I think everybody's ready to get back to normal.”

Heading into the final series, the Chiefs had drawn 58,227 fans over 51 dates (with three rainouts), for an average of 1,142 per game that set a pace for just over 65,000 for the season. That's a decline of more than 67% from 2019, when they totaled 198,545 in attendance. Prior to this year, the seasonal average dating back to 2013 was 214,442.

Mott said finding out there would be games this year just 2½ months before the start of the season made things especially difficult.

“I think the biggest thing is, our industry here is about groups. Groups, business is big for us, and a lot of businesses still aren't fully back,” said Mott. “It was a big challenge for us not to have that October to May offseason to pound the phones and make those calls, because if you make a call during a pandemic and say, ‘Hey, we're talking about groups,’ the number one question is: ‘Are you playing?’ ‘Well, I don't know.’ ‘Well, then call me when you are.’”

Mott said the ongoing pandemic has suppressed attendance all across minor league baseball.

“There's a lot of teams that are in this boat. Obviously bigger markets were fine, but looking at our own league, nobody is up where they were,” he said. “There was always going to be challenges going into this year; anybody that didn't think there was, I think just was being naive.”

Mott said the team reduced expenses down to 25% percent of the normal budget to make it through the year financially in anticipation of smaller crowds.

“This isn't just about ’21; this is about the next 50-100 years of Chiefs baseball here in Peoria, and that's the focus,” he said. As much as I would love to have packed stadiums every night, I get it. We’re just ready to have a normal offseason, come back strong in ’22 and get back to the fun.”

Mott acknowledged the cutbacks were less than ideal, particularly in regard to concessions.

“We had our challenges on our side, from staffing and a lot of different things, but it all in my opinion, we've done the best we could with what we had,” he said. “The good thing about this year is everybody's seen how the restaurant industry has struggled, and I think that's helped people understand and be more cognizant of that, because stadiums aren't any different. We're just a glorified restaurant when he when you really think about it.”

Peoria’s on-field performance didn’t help matters, with the Chiefs posting a 43-71 record and sitting in last place in the High-A Central League’s West Division. But Mott said he’s not sure how much of a factor that really is.

“Usually winning in professional sports is that's the way you get people to continue to come. For us, it's more about the experience,” he said. “Perhaps if you have a top prospect, I think that's a draw; I've seen a lot of people and talked to a lot of people that have come up from the St. Louis area to see Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn. I think that's actually probably a bigger draw than winning a championship.”

While the July 4 game set this season’s high mark for attendance at 4,069, four of the Chiefs’ 10 largest crowds came in their four most recent home games: Aug. 26-29 against South Bend, the Chicago Cubs affiliate that generates a bit of a rivalry for the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team.

“That's always big,” said Mott. “People always are like, ‘Oh, there's a lot of blue here,’ but I don't care. I mean, I'm a Cardinals fan, but at the end of the day they're baseball fans. We just want baseball fans to come out enjoy a great night at the ballpark.”

The “Fan Appreciation Week” promotion features special ticket deals each day, concluding with Sunday’s Family Day season finale with kids under 12 free with an adult, dogs allowed for “Bark in the Park,” and everyone able to run the bases following the game.

The Chiefs released their 2022 schedule Tuesday, featuring an increase to 66 home games. The home season begins April 12 and ends Sept. 4, with games at Dozer Park on Independence Day, Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.