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