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Peoria Chiefs encouraged by attendance boost heading into season-ending homestand

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Tim Shelley
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WCBU
The Peoria Chiefs are on pace for an attendance increase of more than 90% over last year heading into this week's final homestand of the season.

As the Peoria Chiefs continue to rebound from a 2020 season lost to COVID-19, a sharp rise in attendance this year offers optimism for the future.

Heading into this week’s season-ending homestand against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Chiefs are on pace to see a reported attendance increase of more than 90% over last season.

“It’s what you want to see,” said Chiefs general manager Jason Mott. “I look at it kind of like a three-year process, right? Coming back from a pandemic, obviously, last year was going to be what it was. You need to see that growth this year in year two, and then year three is kind of next year is that jump.”

Peoria entered Tuesday’s series opener with an attendance total of 121,038, an average of 2,051 fans per game over 59 dates at Dozer Park. In 2021, the official reported attendance for the entire season was 69,725, although Mott said that figure isn’t quite accurate.

“I went back and started looking at last year, and unfortunately we couldn't change it. The people that were handling the reporting last year, they were reporting in-park numbers and they're supposed to report tickets sold for that game,” said Mott. “So our numbers last year were probably lower than what they should have been.

“But it's still up quite a bit, and I think we're seeing that across everywhere: food and beverage is up, groups are up, season tickets are up, the (team) store is up — and a lot of them pretty substantially compared to last year. It's definitely encouraging; it's probably better than I expected, so I'm excited for 2023.”

That doesn’t mean the business has made it all the way back quite yet, as the Chiefs saw attendance decline for three consecutive seasons even before the pandemic. And while the team is on track to top 133,000 tickets sold this season, that’s still down about 33% from 2019 (198,545) before COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 schedule.

“I think that paints the picture right there, it was not pleasant. The pandemic was a huge blow, just like it would be to any small business,” said Mott. “I think that that's the one thing that sometimes people don't realize: we are a small business. That's what we are, so anytime a small business has zero revenue coming in, that's not good for the business.

“2020 was just about survival, doing whatever we could to generate some revenue and keep our expenses down. But I think knowing that we're up as much as we are this year but we're still not back to ’19 — which again, I didn't expect to be this year — that paints that picture of really what was going on in 2020.”

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Peoria Chiefs
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Fans focus on the action during a Peoria Chiefs game earlier this season at Dozer Park. With six games remaining, the Chiefs are on pace to draw more than 133,000 fans this season - an increase of more than 90% over last year, but still down 33% from 2019.

This year’s gains at the gate have come in spite of struggles on the diamond, with the Chiefs’ overall record at 51-69 prior to Tuesday’s series opener.

“That's the big difference between the majors and the (minors), right? People go to St. Louis expecting to see them (the Cardinals) win,” said Mott. “That's where we're different. I always tell people, we could get beat 20-0, and I shoot off fireworks and if you ask people when they leave, ‘Hey, how was your experience?’ ‘Oh, it was awesome.’ So I think winning is a backseat here to the experience.”

Mott noted one factor the team can emphasize to draw more fans, particularly families, to the games is the faster pace of play resulting from Minor League Baseball implementing a pitch clock.

“The pitch clock has changed our game. I mean, last Tuesday or Wednesday — I can't remember which day it was — we finished our game in 1:59. That's impressive,” said Mott. “That's a game-changer when you think about families.

“This is not the old baseball game that people were used to coming to where it's three-plus hours. So the pitch clock could be something that we've got to educate people on what that's done to our game. You can be home by 9 o'clock now and catch a (complete) baseball game on most nights.”

Mott said the team is working on securing financing for some possible offseason upgrades at Dozer Park, including installation of LED lighting and a new field.

“Mike (Reno), our groundskeeper, he does a fantastic job with that field. People always come to me and say, ‘Your field looks great,’ and he needs to hear that because he puts a lot of work into it,” said Mott. “So replacing that field is going to be — obviously there’ll still be work to do — but hopefully that will take some of that stress off of him, trying to keep that fill looking sharp for all the Bradley games and our games and all the high school games.”

Mott said other potential additions would likely be for the players’ benefits, such as a batting cage behind center field and upgrades to the locker rooms, kitchen and video rooms.

“I think over the next few years, we also want to take a look at the fan experience side of it, too, whether it be new party areas, probably adding a lot more drink rails,” said Mott. “I think people have really enjoyed the drink rails around the stadium. It's given that social atmosphere because that's really what it is here: this is a social atmosphere. That's why people come; they come to talk, have fun, have a hot dog, have a beverage and just get away. I want people to look at baseball as a nine-inning vacation.”

The Chiefs have several promotions planned for the final six home games, including fireworks after both weekend games and Fan Appreciation Day giveaways during Sunday’s series finale.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.