I have been in Wichita for about a month now, and covering the Wingnuts has been a large part of my job so far. Outside of the crazy pace the Nuts are setting in the South Division, the number one storyline I can see is a desire for a large number of fans to get back to affiliated baseball.
Wichita has been in the American Association since 2007, when the Wranglers left for Arkansas. Those last years saw very low attendance numbers compared to the rest of the league, according to Wingnuts President and General Manager Josh Robertson who was also a member of the Wrangler organization.
"I don't know if it was something people just didn't connect with, or if there was just too much to do in the city to not make it out."
But in the American Association, Robertson says attendance has been great. One of the main factors contributing is the recent success: three straight division titles and the best record in the league so far this year.
It is hard to control success on the field when your team is affiliated, as the Major League Clubs control almost all roster decisions. We looked to Nuts Manager Kevin Hooper for a comparison.
"I always use the reference of myself going to AA to manage. You've got a 1st round rounder, where it doesn't matter if you have any respect for him or he any for you. He's got to be in the line-up hitting third every night."
On the field, there likely wouldn't be much of a difference in quality of baseball. Almost all of the players in the American Association have been affiliated players at one point. Several very recently. Like Wingnuts Pitcher Jon Link, who has been up and down several times the last couple years including to AAA. He says the perks for a player certainly go up in affiliated ball, but the fans get a pretty comparable product here in Wichita.
"Watching the Wingnuts play and watching how they go get the players that they get, the product is very similar to a AAA affiliated team. As far as our fans here in Wichita, they pretty much get to see a AAA affiliated team every night play."
But still, with affiliation, you get some of the best players in the world at their early stages. And in some lucky situations, you can get an affiliation with the MLB team most closely followed by the city. Wichita had that though with the Royals AA franchise, and still struggled to draw.
One of the other factors is the travel costs associated with affiliation. Something Robertson brought up when discussing some of the issues.
"Let's say we were to bring a AA team back in here. There's only two AA leagues in all of professional baseball. You have to look at geographic locations for travel purposes. Travel is expensive."
Many would point to Lawrence-Dumont and the need for either a new stadium or high dollar renovations. It's a great point. There are a lot of places across the country that draw extremely well. Most of those boast great new stadiums.
The stadium is the elephant in the room. What to does the Wichita community do? It takes taxes to fund one, and ticket prices would almost certainly increase if a new stadium were built. It's a multi-million dollar question only the fans can answer.
I asked that question when talking to Wingnut brass. First, from Hooper.
"A lot of people would like to have a new stadium and have affiliated ball back, but is that enough people to continue to support it like we continue to talk about? Who knows? I don't think anybody knows the answer to that. It's one of those things you take a chance if you want to, and if it works great. If not, you might look silly that you had done that."
It's a sentiment echoed by Robertson.
"If we were to bring an affiliated club back here it would need to be supported like anything else. There's a lot to do in this city."