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Staten Island Yankees battle dropping attendance

Infielder Gleyber Torres of the New York Yankees.
June 27, 2017 03:18 pm

NEW YORK — Vincent Winter sat a few rows behind first base with his mother and his aunt. Wearing a Fire Department of New York hat and a matching yellow T-shirt, the 7-year-old Vincent giddily awaited the moment when he could go on the field.

He was eager to “box” there with Scooter, a person dressed as a giant cow clad in a pinstripe jersey, just before the start of the Staten Island Yankees’ home opener.

But as game time approached on Saturday evening, large sections of seats remained empty.

“This area is so up-and-coming,” Morgan Stapelfeldt, Vincent’s aunt, said. “I don’t see why this is not their time to fill seats.”

The Staten Island Yankees’ home-opening day smelled, sounded and looked like a ballgame. The popping of beer can tabs and the crackling of pretzel wrappers punctuated the sound from the speakers of pop staples like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere.” The aroma of hot dogs wafted over the dark blue seats. Hats came off and hands fell on chests as fifth graders from the Public School 50 band picked up their flutes and snare drums and delivered “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But the fans filled only 4,031 of the 7,171 seats at Richmond County Bank Ballpark. That figure was “about on par” with what was expected, a team spokesman, Ian Fontenot, said, but it pales in comparison with past opening-game attendance.

The team arrived in 1999, and its most successful year was in 2010, when the ballpark had total attendance of 209,018. Last year, attendance dropped to 85,513, an average of 2,250 per game. By comparison, the Brooklyn Cyclones, another New York-Penn League team and a New York Mets farm team, averaged 5,617 fans at their Coney Island park.

The Staten Island Yankees’ team president, Will Smith, attributed the poor attendance to a shortage of parking. The park is sandwiched between two massive projects — Empire Outlets, which is described as the city’s first premium outlet mall, and the New York Wheel, which is to be the world’s largest Ferris wheel. The Ferris wheel took the ballpark’s old parking lot. In June 2016, the wheel offered a self-park garage with a capacity of about 800 cars, where fans can park for $6.

Smith has tried using the ballpark’s “dynamite views” to attract other events people will pay for: concerts, wrestling, a “winter wonderland” ice skating rink later this year. The recent “Unforgettable I.P.A. and Taco Festival” celebrated local businesses while bringing community members together to sip beer from glasses labeled “fifth and forgotten” — a reference to Staten Island’s self-image as the neglected stepchild among New York City’s five boroughs.

Branding is a big part of getting people to support a minor league team. Smith is considering renaming the team. Old ideas for names included the Rock Pigeons, the Pizza Rats and the Killa Bees (a term associated with the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, whose members are from Staten Island).

Already, Smith has brought ticket prices down to $16 from $18 in some sections. To the dismay of some season ticket holders, he also increased the costs of group packages, an area where the team had been losing money. Though revenue increased from 2015 to 2016, fewer people showed up.

Fans had their own theories as to why attendance has fallen so drastically.

Up in the suite seats on Saturday, two Little Leaguers decked out in pinstripe uniforms grabbed burgers and watched the game. People on Staten Island refuse to give the minor league players a chance, said Christopher Lupo, 13.

“Nobody really cares. They want to see the New York Yankees,” said Christopher, who is in the eighth grade on Staten Island. “They underestimate these guys and think they don’t have talent, but they do.”

Down by the bouncy house, Michael Fonte, 52, hoped that someday his son, Michael Fonte Jr., 6, could trade the entertainment of his iPad for a night watching minor league baseball.

“People, if they don’t have a phone in their hands, they feel lost,” Fonte said. “We didn’t have that before.”

In one section of the stands sat an unlikely group — a rowdy crowd of Tulane University alumni. One of them, Scotty Fletcher, wanted to celebrate his 24th birthday at a ballgame and bought group tickets to treat his friends.

“Someone told me you could take public transit to a free ferry, see the Statue of Liberty and then go to a baseball game for a really affordable price,” said Fletcher, a San Diego native who lives in Brooklyn. “What could be better?”

A friend of Fletcher’s, a native New Yorker named Sumner Miller, 25, never thought he would set foot on Staten Island.

“This is the forgotten borough,” he said.

One bleacher section over, a retired New York police officer, Michael Dimino, 67, said he hoped Staten Island would stay forgotten.

He sat alone in the east side of the ballpark. He said he hoped the city’s tourism developments would not erode the distinct character of Staten Island’s culture. “Leave us alone,” Dimino said.

After the game, a 4-3 Yankees victory in 10 innings over the Aberdeen (Maryland) IronBirds, a fireworks display lit up the Manhattan skyline in the background as U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” blared.

Joanne Barbara, the widow of a Fire Department assistant chief, Gerard Barbara, who died in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, watched the show from the field.

Her husband, a Staten Island native, loved coming to these games, she said.

Barbara looked around at the thinning crowd, then waved at the fireworks and wondered aloud why Staten Islanders would not want a “phenomenal night” in their hometown.

“This is your community,” she said. “If you don’t support your community, it will fall by the wayside.”