09 Jan

going, going … gone

It is not a shock to those who follow local baseball that Pearl is losing its Southern League franchise. You could see this coming. The Mississippi Braves have not drawn well at Trustmark Park during most of the club’s 20-year run there. The average attendance over the last three seasons, since the minor leagues came back from the lost year of 2020, has been about 2,300, ranking near the bottom in all of Double-A baseball. (And that 2,300 is an announced figure, not an actual turnstile count, which would be significantly lower.) The real surprise was that the city of Pearl got a team in the first place back in 2005. Nearby Jackson, which hosted a Texas League franchise for 25 years, lost its team in 1999 because of declining attendance — and rising operating costs — at Smith-Wills Stadium. As Con Maloney, the former TL franchise owner said just after he sold the club, “There are a lot of good baseball fans here — just not enough of them to support a minor league team.” The Double-A Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate, averaged roughly 2,500 fans in their best season, 1996. (The turnstile count that year was 1,866.) In their final, lame-duck year of 1999, the team drew 1,416 per game — though 4,367 turned out for the final game that year. The independent DiamondKats moved in in 2000, drew about 700 a game and promptly folded up shop. The independent Senators arrived at Smith-Wills in 2002 and averaged about 1,700 per game for four years, opting to fold after the 2005 season, when the Braves began playing — to much initial fanfare — at Trustmark Park. It took an odd confluence of events and the involvement of some powerful people to get Trustmark Park built and get the Atlanta Braves to move their Southern League franchise from Greenville, S.C., to Pearl. But it happened. The team drew relatively well at first: over 3,500 per game (announced) the first three seasons at the 5,500-seat TeePee. But attendance dropped under 3,000 a game in Season 5 and was down to 2,600 per in 2010. They averaged 2,378 in 2023; the national MiLB average last season was 4,076. Rocket City (Huntsville, Ala.) led the SL at 4,911 per game. Bottom line, the M-Braves are averaging roughly what the Generals averaged in their best years — and that wasn’t enough to sustain the franchise. For the record, the Jackson Mets, who preceded the Generals at Smith-Wills (from 1975-90), never averaged more than 2,000 a game in announced figures. So, with the Trustmark Park lease up after this season, Diamond Baseball Holdings, which bought the franchise from Atlanta in 2021, is moving it to Columbus, Ga., into a renovated ballpark that — oddly enough — once housed the Astros team that moved to Jackson in 1991. Going back to 1953, when the original Jackson Senators pulled up stakes after their downtown stadium was destroyed by a tornado, central Mississippi has been jilted by six baseball teams. Will there be a seventh marriage?

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