UF baseball: If you build it, will they come?

Despite record attendance in 2018, Florida is hopeful even more fans will flock to new ballpark

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New baseball stadium
A conceptual rendering of the UF baseball stadium. [Courtesy of UF]

Florida baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan said he appreciates the fan support he’s received throughout his 11-year tenure.

“It really helps our team,” O’Sullivan said.

As Florida steamrolled through another stellar baseball season under O’Sullivan in 2018, fans flocked to McKethan Stadium in record numbers. Florida finished the regular season averaging a record 4,083 fans, up slightly from its national championship campaign in 2017 (4,015). In addition, Florida took advantage of the momentum of its first national title by selling its most season tickets since 2006.

Yet with a new, more modern ballpark on the way in 2020, there is hope for greater attendance gains and more frequent sellouts.

“I definitely think it can be a hot ticket and a happening place, more so than it currently is,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said.

Twice this season, No. 1 Florida drew standing-room only crowds at McKethan Stadium, on March 13 against rival Florida State (6,042) and on April 13 against Missouri (6,214), the night before UF’s spring football game. On the flip side, Florida only had six out of 34 dates in which it drew 5,000 or more fans at McKethan Stadium. Packing the Mac, which seats 5,500, was more the exception than the norm.

Still, Florida finished the regular season ranked ninth nationally in attendance. The Gators had the sixth highest attendance in the SEC, behind baseball-mad LSU (1st, 10,784 fans), Ole Miss (2nd, 8,760), Arkansas (3rd, 7,736), South Carolina (4th, 6,748) and Texas A&M (5th, 5,059).

Ask fans why they don’t go to McKethan Stadium more often and most focus on comfort at the ballpark, with its lack of shade covering and grandstands that point toward the sun. Of the 14 ballparks in the SEC, Florida, Tennessee and Missouri are the only three without shade covering for fans.

“It’s a tough place to watch a ballgame,” said Gordon Burleson, a longtime Gator fan and past president of the Gator Dugout Club. “I’ve got a continuous problem with skin cancer, nothing really bad, but I have to go to the doctor twice a year to get zapped, so I can understand where they (fans) are coming from.”

Yet Florida actually had better average attendance for day games (4,208 for 14 dates) compared to night games (3,995) in 2018. Fans appeared to be more fickle about the quality of the opponent. Florida averaged 4,299 for weekend (Thursday-Sunday) games, as opposed to an average of 3,635 fans for mid-week (Tuesday-Wednesday) opponents. The attendance gap for SEC for non-SEC games was even wider — a 4,606 average for SEC games as opposed to a 3,542 average for non-SEC opponents.

“College baseball mid-week games are just a challenge in general, from an attendance standpoint,” Stricklin said. “It’s just harder to get big crowds in. I don’t know what the percentage is, but you have a lot of people coming to games from out of town, from Jacksonville, from Tampa or from Orlando and it’s just harder to do that during the week.”

Burleson has been going to Gator baseball games since the 1960s, when there was merely a row of bleachers behind Perry Field, “a lot of students there, mostly locals, though,” Burleson said. “You would get crowds in the hundreds.”

The fanbase has grown through UF’s run of 11 College World Series appearances since 1988, culminated by its first national title in 2017. Burleson said he separates fans into three different groups — the hardcore fans, the ones that bring their families and ones who go to the game to socialize.

“The students are almost non-existent and I have my own theory on that,” Burleson said. “ I think it has a lot to do with the generation that wishes to have instant gratification and baseball is just too slow for them, and it is different. If you look at football and basketball, and a basketball game lasts about two hours tops but there’s action, football about the same, but it’s constant action. Baseball there’s not.”

Stricklin said part of the charge to attract students is to make games more of a happening. The past few seasons, food trucks have been brought in on Friday nights in an effort to entice students to the ballpark.

“We’ve got to make it as much of an event as we can so that’s creating spaces where they can socialize and have fun when there’s company and be with other people,” Stricklin said. “In this day and age of social media people still want to be with other people, so a lot of planning for the new ballpark is geared toward creating those social settings.”

Construction for the new ballpark is scheduled to begin this fall. At a price tag of $50 million, it will feature a 360-degree open concourse which will give fans constant field views and multiple seating options under shade covering. Permanent chairback seating will increase from 2,408 to 5,000 at the new ballpark. The capacity will be 5,000 for seating, and up to 10,000 with standing room only areas on various berms and walkways throughout the ballpark.

Stricklin said he expects some form of wireless connectivity throughout the ballpark. There will be premium areas where alcohol will be available for sale. SEC rules only allow venues to serve alcohol in premium seating areas.

The location of the new ballpark, off Hull Road adjacent to UF’s softball stadium, will be less central for students on campus. But Stricklin said he feels that the spot is ideal for all fans.

“We have huge crowds show up for softball games and that is right across the street and lacrosse and soccer play out there,” Stricklin said. “As far as the students, probably the nicest rec center on our campus (The Southwest Rec Center) is right there. In some ways, I think it may be easier for those off campus to get to, than the current setup. I think that’s a good location. Parking is something, we’re going to have parking spots, and obviously the Phillips Center parking garage is out there, within walking distance.”

Stricklin said the new ballpark also will be designed for a more intimate feel, with less foul territory and stands that will slope down to field level.

“With the current ballpark there’s a sense of detachment between the spectators and the action,” Stricklin said. “There’s a ton of foul territory, the first row of seats are off the ground so there’s a physical divide.”

In addition to being more fan friendly, the new ballpark will help enhance the UF baseball team competitively, with new batting cages, a new training room, a renovated locker room and players lounge.

“It’s certainly going to enhance the student-athlete experience,” O’Sullivan said. “It really hasn’t affected our recruiting. We’ve always recruited at a high level. But it’s going to be awfully nice. I know our administration has spent a lot of time and effort and obviously a lot of money on this new facility. We’re anxious to get it started, and can’t wait to get into it in a couple of years.”

Take me out to the ballgame

Breaking down UF’s average attendance in 2018:

Day Games:; 4,208; 14 dates

Night: ; 3,995; 20 dates

SEC: ; 4.606; 15 dates

Non-SEC: ; 3,542; 19 dates

Weekend (Thurs-Sat):; 4,299; 24 dates

Mid-week (Tue-Wed): ; 3,635; 10 dates

Average by season

2016: 3,966

2017: 4,015

2018: 4,083

7 COMMENTS

  1. My husband and I are Gator Baseball fans. When we lived in Gainesville we went to virtually every game and bought season tickets. We now live in Ocala and work is an hour south of there each way. I agree sun/weather combined with distance for some fans are issues. When we go, we sit on the visitors side up high due to less sun and more breeze lol. Those climbs to the top are getting harder though. Shade would be much welcomed. I hope they also find a way to put air circulation plus improved design into the bathrooms. As tar as attracting new student fans, I was ambivalent to baseball until I went to a live game learned to keep score. For MLB I joined a casual fantasy league. If you could gear contests to learning the game and rules somehow, that might be fun. You may have to have a volunteer run a digital quiz in between innings. Maybe award points to go into existing Gator point programs, or let baseball points be exchanged for sponsored exclusive Gator baseball items.

    • Lori, I think your suggestion for a fun way to teach the rules and nuances of the game to new fans is a great idea. That would help create fans of the game itself. My concern is that “fans” drawn to a “social event” with the game as a sidebar, will look elsewhere for their entertainment as soon as the novelty of the new stadium wears off. Fans of the game of baseball will continue to come as long as there’s a good product on the field. I understand that certain creature comforts are needed, but if UAA wants to improve my fan experience in any sport, “just win, baby!”.

  2. The time is a big problem for students. The whole point of going to uf is to have a great education…and that takes work and time. I think that’s an issue with all of sports. And you have many good choices.
    The wifi and roof help so you can get some work. I say lower your expectations and be grateful!

  3. Tampa just did a big study because the owner of the baseball team wants 500 million dollars for a new stadium. The upshot was adding a million people to the 30 minute driving radius was worth 2500 fans per game. The new stadium will be nice but I have my doubts that it will pay off for Tampa or Gainesville.

    My vote is cool it for now but see if new technologies in a few years may start to make sense…a virtual 3d replay may bring the games all around north Florida so that more viewers can enjoy the experience in places like Trenton and starke which could pay off better than a me too stadium today.

  4. Mid week games do not draw crowds for many reasons. The level of the teams are poor(except only one game against FSU), Kevin uses them to test new pitchers-so our chances of winning are down, games are after work& school for kids who have more and more activities at their own schools(ie middle school, high school). Everyone thinks UF students are the needed draw… they are not. The softball stadium is packed with parents, and families in the community. Advertising needs to be focused on the kids, and Mom’s and Dad’s of middle schoolers and high schoolers. Offer suggestions to Alachua County/Gainesville schools to have special events for extracuricular activity nights during the week. Have the local bands show up on a midweek game (ie discounted group tickets) and perform the national anthem, or take me out to the ballgame in the seventh inning. Invite the local Softball and baseball leagues each week. Those fans are the ones that, if they have a good experience, the parent might buy season tickets!!
    Also have video screens on the concourses, seating areas etc, with the UF game on one screen(ie replays, feed) and the NBA or MLB on the next screen. Give those so called lazy, instant gratification college student, something else to see when the game is getting slow. The season starts in Feb/March so every college basketball game available (ie conference tournaments, march madness)should be on a screen somewhere in the ballpark. Make it an all inclusive entertainment experience. Otherwise people stay home because they can see so many other things on TV or streaming when the game slows down, or Sully puts in his freshman with the 7.5 era during a Tuesday night game and we lose 3 or 4 games to UCF. (not much reason to go to that one).
    Lastly if it’s out there next to the campus rec center, advertise like crazy in the rec center. Most people on campus do not know if there is a game on a Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday night. Nor do they know who we are playing. Each one of the those workout rooms should have a scrolling sign with the next two or three days events on it. So when I’m in there running on the treadmill for 45 minutes,I could say, ” hay maybe we should grab the frat gang and head to the game tonight..”

    Every game at LSU and Miss ST they have great advertisements and ways to reach those mostly drunk tigers fans.

    With any active and ever changing marketing plan, UF should have a goal to lead the SEC in attendance, not just be happy with middle of the pack.
    These baseball players are coming from somewhere, so there is still interest in the game, just need the right group. Also go look into the Animals of section B (I think) at FSU. Need a greek or student organization to lead that type of charge into the new stadium, and make it a great rowdy reptiles section not just for basketball.

    Thoughts of a loyal UF baseball fan. CWS in 2010, 2015, and 2017. UF class of ’95

  5. I’m a loyal Gators baseball fan and attend about 10 games per year. The Mac is wonderful for baseball and all that’s needed are some modest upgrades like shading a few more chair back seats and improved bathrooms and amenities. That was the reasonable proposal put forward two years ago. I see no need for pouring more concrete and losing an additional 13.5 acres of green space on the beautiful UF campus. Plus, you’re moving the venue out of central campus. How is that going to increase student attendance? But we know what’s really behind the decision … football.