As Minor League Baseball wraps up the 2019 season, teams across the country are rewriting history books. Not just tallying runs scored, balls hit and games won, but higher attendance — a result of being more inclusive of LGBTQ fans.
MiLB clubs including Birmingham, Biloxi, Greensboro, Durham, Charleston, Gwinnett, Norfolk, Springfield, Daytona, Richmond, Lexington and Charleston all held successful Pride Nights this season. And as MiLB diversity and inclusion associate Benjamin Pereira told Outsports, for many of those ballclubs, it was their very first Pride Night.
The idea, he said, is “to bring communities together and proactively engage and embrace the LGBTQ community with a focus on creating an environment where everyone feels welcome.”
Calling the MiLB effort the “largest documented Pride celebration in professional sports,” Pereira connected Outsports with a number of minor league baseball teams that saw attendance rise on the night they celebrated Pride. We asked each of the team spokespersons what kind of reception they received from fans, and if there was any downside.
West Virginia Power
“We did not receive any negative feedback,” said David Kahn of the West Virginia Power in an email. He reported nearly 32-hundred fans attended the team’s first-ever Pride Night in June, a 41% increase over the average Thursday night crowd. “The reception was overwhelmingly positive. We were well prepared to deal with negative calls or social media posts, thanks to the guidance from MiLB, but did not have to handle any of them,” said Kahn.
The Power players and support staff were “very supportive” of the promotion, Kahn told Outsports. Chuck the mascot attended the West Virginia Rainbow Pride event and handed out fliers advertising the game. Kahn said the team plans to hold another Pride Night next year, and even expand on what they did this season.
Richmond Flying Squirrels
Over in Virginia, the Richmond Flying Squirrels held their first Pride Night in July, and saw attendance jump 17%, filling the stadium to nearly 99% capacity with just over 7,900 fans.
“We had very minimal negative feedback, especially when compared to the positive responses we received from the Richmond community,” said Anthony Oppermann of the Squirrels.
The key, Oppermann said, was partnering with a local LGBTQ group. “Virginia Pride was incredibly professional, supportive and enthusiastic throughout the planning process and execution of the game event. They brought energy to the front gates on the day of the event and helped create a great atmosphere inside the ballpark,” he wrote in an email to Outsports. Oppermann said the team is excited to hold Pride Nights in the future because of Virginia Pride’s support and that of local businesses.
LGBTQ fans in Southeast Virginia responded in huge numbers to the Norfolk Tides’ first Pride Night. Pereira told Outsports attendance zoomed more than 35%, to more than 4,700 on a Tuesday night in June. And souvenirs were a hit, according to Ian Locke, the team’s director of communications.
“We had a lot of interest in any of the Pride merchandise that we made available in our team store,” he said in an email to Outsports. “We had a commemorative hat and a couple t-shirt options and they were very popular, so we will most likely have more of those available in the future.”
The team partnered with Hampton Roads Pride among other groups.
Players had positive reactions, Locke said, but there were some fans who ranted online against the event. “The only negative feedback we saw came in sporadic comments on our Facebook page, but there was overwhelming support for the night among our fans,” said Locke. “The few negative comments we did see were always followed by many more comments from fans applauding us for hosting the event. It was great to see our community rally together for such a positive cause.”
The Research Triangle Region of North Carolina is home to the Durham Bulls, made famous in a 1988 film starring Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. And it’s also in the state where a battle for transgender rights made worldwide headlines. Bulls marketing and communications chief Matt Sutor told Outsports in an email that there was some blowback from individual fans, expressing what he called “disappointment” about the team’s Pride Night in July. But there was no organized response or protest.
“I thought our response on social media to those disagreeing with the night was strong and educational,” said Sutor. “We learned that many people have never put themselves into the shoes of a member of the LGBTQ community, and might not understand that group of people doesn’t always feel welcome anywhere they go.”
Sutor said for next year, the team hopes to make that message “a larger part of the narrative.” He also said LGBTQ fans let the team know they have never felt unwelcome in their stadium, which Sutor said “was rewarding to hear.”
The team went all-out, flying a Bulls Pride flag from the flagpole behind center field and selling Bulls Pride banners. The game benefited the LGBTQ Center of Durham and local TV stations like WRAL-TV covered the event on the local news and online.
Reaction among the players was mixed, according to Sutor. “Many players were open to the idea of a Pride Night and wearing Pride shirts during batting practice, but some players were not.” Attendance increased by 16% over last year, with just over 8K fans in the seats for that July game.
According to MiLB, attendance was up in Greensboro, N.C. more than 32 percent on the Grasshoppers’ first Pride Night in June.
The team sold a ticket package that included a special Pride hat and was also sold individually. A parade around the field was organized prior to the first pitch, and local LGBTQ community leaders and a chorus took part in opening ceremonies. Greensboro Pride and the Gilford Green Foundation partnered with the team, according to Pereira.
Video from the game posted to Facebook by the foundation shows the Grasshoppers mascot dancing to Madonna’s “Vogue,” not typically a song included in the regular season minor league soundtrack.
Down in Florida, the first Pride Night held by the Clearwater Threshers minor league team was not as big a success as in other stadiums, but they did see a 4% increase in sales from a year ago. That was enough for the team to decide to hold another one next year.
“We will probably do a Pride Night as a stand-alone event on a weeknight, rather than tied to a Saturday night fireworks show,” said Robert Stretch of the Threshers. “We feel it was successful enough to stand on its own.”
Other features of the first Pride Night were a gay men’s classic car club show outside the stadium and promotional Pride-themed merchandise. The Threshers partnered with several groups: Equality Florida, Metro Wellness, St. Pete Pride, PFLAG of Dunedin and Pasco County Pride.
Stretch said some of the players wore the special rainbow-colored Pride athletic tape that MiLB provided for the event, and according to the league, the team sponsored and marched in the St. Pete Pride March.
Pereira was among those attending the July 27th Pride Night in Clearwater, and shared his observations with Outsports.
“The fans I spoke with were really excited to see Clearwater hosting a Pride night, they were excited for the progress their community has made and realized that this could be still considered risky for the club,” he wrote.
“I think fans appreciated that the Threshers were willing to commit to the community in ways that extended beyond just a single game. The club has sponsored and marched in local pride parades, volunteered at local LGBTQ youth camps, and helped promote local PFLAG chapters.
“I also spoke with some fans who had no idea it was Pride night until they entered the stadium. For them, the promotion made no difference on their attendance. They came to watch baseball, and so did everyone else!
“While speaking with fans at the Threshers Pride night, not one fan, regardless of sexual orientation, expressed displeasure with the team for hosting. Not all fans were as excited as others, but I think the lack of backlash (consistent with the rest of the league’s Pride games) signals that these nights are cultural norms and are expected in 2019.
“The only concern I heard from fans at the game about the club hosting Pride night was about safety. Queer and non-queer fans recognized that these nights could easily be targeted for an attack, and it was personally alarming to hear so many queer fans question their safety. We still have so much progress to make, and it’s our hope that these Pride nights signify that our ballparks are safe venues for all who walk through our gates.”
If you attended a Pride Night at a minor league ballpark this season, share your photos with us by tweeting them to @outsports, posting them on Instagram or to Facebook, and use the hashtags #OutsportsPride and #MiLBPride