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Attendance drop means tough choices for Haymarket Senators

There is no plan in place and the board of directors have made no decisions.

Yet Haymarket is in danger of losing its Valley League Baseball team for the 2013 season and possibly beyond that if the organization does not meet its fundraising goal of raising an extra $20,000 by August.

"Unfortunately, if we are unable to either attract others to join our Team of Directors or raise the additional funds by the end of the 2012 season, Blue Ridge Baseball will be forced to suspend baseball operations of the Valley League Club at the conclusion of the 2012 season," wrote Bernie Schaffler in a July 6 press release.

Schaffler serves as one of four members of the board of directors for the non-profit group that runs the ball club.

The four of them are also the past former owners of the team and have been around since the Senators' 2006 inception.

Fellow director Scott Newell explained during a phone interview on Monday that attendance to Senators games is down 40 percent since last year. He mentioned that, at this point last year, more than 200 fans typically entered each night.

Now, that number is around 145 per game, he said.

A fall-off in attendance is not isolated to the Senators as a handful of other teams in the league (up to four, according to Newell) have grappled with the same issue.

However, "I believe we're the worst when it comes to attendance and then year over year from last year. We had been on an uptrend every year since 2007; we had increased every year since 2007."

He identified 65 percent of the team's support comes from Loudoun County. That is why directors have analyzed whether it would make sense moving the team closer to its base in the lower Loudoun communities of South Riding and Stone Ridge.

"We have looked at that. I wouldn't say we're leaning one way or another," said Newell, who lives in the Loudoun town of Aldie with fellow director Jayme Newell just beyond the Prince William border.

So do Bernie and Robin Schaffler, the other two directors.

"If it means switching locations to keep them alive," said Newell of the Senators, "that's remains an option."

At peak of attendance in 2009, when the Senators won the Valley Baseball League tournament championship, over 350 people came by each night during the playoffs.

What's more crucial than just the ticket sales now is that fans tend to spend more money than just on the entrance fee. They'll buy food, drinks and merchandise too, according to Newell.

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that while attendance is down 40 percent, overall revenue is down by virtually the same margin, Newell said.

He declined to share exact money figures, citing privacy agreements with Major League Baseball.

What he outlined instead is just where the money that comes into the organization goes. There are three core services: providing transportation for players to away games, paying for umpires and coaches and meeting the guarantees set before the players even start the season, such as providing food each night.

Newell said that the team is about a quarter of the way to meeting its $20,000 goal and has two major fundraisers coming up to help achieve that status.

One is a hit-a-thon set for this Friday at Battlefield Park at 5 p.m. featuring members of the Senators taking batting practice before the game against Front Royal.

Schaffler wrote that donors can either "contribute a pledge based off how far" an individual player hits per foot in batting practice (10 cents per foot on a ball hit 300 feet would be a $30 pledge) or they can "contribute a donation pledge of any amount."

The next fundraiser is a golf tournament set in Dominion Valley on a date to be determined in September. Newell said he is hoping to recruit 27 groupings of four to hit the links this year, an increase from last year's 15 groupings.

More immediately are the final two home games of the regular season. They are set for this Friday and Saturday and both are scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.

Those games precede the final three regular season road games, taking place between July 22 and 24.

What could change the Senators outlook even more is if the team makes the playoffs.

Entering Tuesday of this week, the Senators held a record of 16-20. However, Winchester is the only team from the North with a record above .500.

The top three teams from each division and the next two best teams from the league as a whole clinch spots in the eight-team playoffs.

Haymarket and Luray both had identical records as of Tuesday, tying them for third place in the North.

Perhaps the Senators best selling point is what it has to offer: the fact that Major League Baseball teams do, in fact, draft some of the players that go through the program.

The crown jewel for the Senators is Josh Judy, who played five years ago before being signed by the Cleveland Indians.

While several former Senators each year are drafted by MLB teams, Judy actually made it through the minors and hit the mound for the Indians in 2011.

Cleveland traded him to Cincinnati this year and he's played at both the Major League and AAA levels so far.

"I would argue that the collection of players that play in the Valley on any given team are better than the A-level in the Minor League," said Newell.
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