By Dave Ongie
The Johnson City Cardinals were unable to defend their Appalachian League championship on the field, but 2017 was still a banner year for the organization nonetheless.
The Cardinals were able to shatter their all-time attendance record for the second season in a row as 65,202 fans poured through the turnstiles and into TVA Credit Union Ballpark this summer.
That’s up from 53,444 a year ago, a mark that allowed Johnson City to break a record that stood for 14 years.
While last year was a tough act to follow, Cardinals Vice President and General Manager Tyler Parsons and his staff found a way to get the job done.
“To start this season, we were absolutely blown away by our attendance and people coming out to these games,” Parsons said. “We’ve seen our fan base get bigger and more widespread in terms of our age demographics.”
Parsons said there have been several factors that have allowed Johnson City to become the Appalachian League’s attendance leader. The impetus was obviously the decision by the Johnson City Commission to allow Boyd Sports, LLC to come in and take over day-to-day operations of the organization, but the revitalization of downtown Johnson City — which has started to spread toward the ballpark — has certainly been a major factor as well.
“I think that’s the reason we’ve seen so much growth is that area growing,” Parsons said. “The Tweetsie Trail completely changed our foot traffic. We became more of a recreational spot.”
While many folks in attendance are glued to the game, more and more folks are showing up simply to socialize. In rookie league baseball, where player development takes priority over wins and losses, Parsons has adopted the philosophy that the fan experience has to transcend the game.
“My motto has always been that baseball is great, but we don’t control that,” he said. “So what else can we do inside this ballpark to generate some excitement and generate some fun? We’ve been fortunate also that we’ve been pretty successful and won some championships. So the baseball side of things has been good as well, but you’re really pushing the atmosphere.”
With that in mind, several renovations inside the stadium have been executed with a focus on drawing in families and young professionals through the gates whether they’re diehard fans of the game or not. The Perch – a gathering spot constructed along the leftfield line – has been a hub of social activity since it opened prior to last season. More renovations are on tap for this offseason, and those changes will be done with the intention of making the ballpark an even more attractive place to socialize on warm summer evenings.
“The future renovations we have here are all going to be geared toward that fan experience,” Parsons said. “Any time we’re going to invest money into the facility, it’s either going to be for the team operation side for St. Louis or for the fan experience.”
There is certainly plenty for Parsons and his staff to be proud of, but he said the Cardinals can’t take all the credit for what has happened, citing the symbiotic relationship the organization has with the City of Johnson City, ETSU and the other businesses in town. The city commission recently approved funds to install brand-new LED lighting for the ballpark.
“We’re thankful for the city helping us get the new lights,” Parsons said. “It may seem like a simple and kind of boring thing, but that’s going to go a long way in improving our playing surface and the whole experience inside the park.
“Everyone kind of has each other’s back when it comes to all the businesses around here. Everyone wants to support each other and see each other succeed, and we’re the same way.”
So while the honors are rolling in for Parsons and his staff, there is plenty of work to be done to keep the ball rolling next season. More renovations are on the horizon, and Parsons is ready.
“I’m excited to see where we can go from here,” he said.