James Burns: Early fiscal returns on Aviators not promising

June 24, 2009 

Burns, James

James Burns, sports editor

The list of sponsors is thin like the attendance, and you'd be a fool not to think the two go hand in hand.

The Atwater Aviators are approaching their one-month birthday and early returns haven't been promising.

Like any new business, the wooden-bat baseball team is feeling the crunch.

Maybe it's these hard economic times, when jobs are scarce, money tight and fewer families are venturing out into the world of commerce.

Or maybe it's a general lack of interest.

Baseball burnout, if you will.

Either way, the Aviators have had a rough start on the home front, fiscally.

Attendance has been shoddy. Only 90 fans turned out for Saturday's victory over the East L.A. Dodgers, and even fewer for their Father's Day series finale.

Since the Aviators' home debut on June 5 -- a game that drew 350 fans -- attendance has fallen faster than David Ortiz's home run totals.

The numbers are a punch in the gut to Atwater general manager and owner Richard Ruiz, a San Jose native whose money, energy and dreams fuel this first-year project.

In the seven home games since June 5, the Aviators have drawn roughly 512 fans, an average of 73 per game.

By comparison, the San Luis Obispo Blues, an established summer-ball team with Division I drawing power, have routinely averaged 600 fans at the height of their summer schedule.

Per game.

At the very least.

"We need more fans," Ruiz said. "We need the public to see us.

"I understand we have to crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run. We want to model ourselves after the Blues and the (Humboldt) Crabs, but we have to get there.

"We have to build it up."

A lack of confidence has bled into the business sector, as well.

So far, local businesses have balked at the opportunity to invest money, time and product. The Aviators have only four major sponsors, one of which provides only printing services.

The polish has come off of Ruiz's treasure.

Or so it seems.

"We're getting there," Ruiz said. "In July, we've got our huge home schedule, so we're doing whatever we can to get the word out."

Indeed, July could be a telling month for the region's newest sports team -- the closest thing to a professional franchise Merced County has seen since the Atwater Packers.

The Aviators will play 23 home games in 31 days, giving this baseball-rich community ample opportunity to catch the fever and buzz.

If the Aviators can't attract crowds...

Well, their critics -- those that wondered in private circles if the city of Atwater would actually support a team of outsiders -- will have won.

To be fair, the product hasn't been bad. Quite the opposite, actually.

The Aviators are 9-6 and riding a three-game winning streak.

To this point, they've been exactly as advertised: average to above-average collegiate baseball players. Some with pop. Some with speed. Some with amazing accuracy and efficiency.

The headache, however, doesn't stem from the diamond or the ballplayers.

Ruiz knows he's assembled a winner. On that front, his risk has been rewarded.

It's convincing the community that has proven to be his toughest task.

"We're hoping," Ruiz said. "We're not getting the business support that we would have liked, but that comes with the territory.

"We're a new business. ... To be honest with you, sponsorship and advertising is going to be the key to our success. If we can get some businesses to come and support us, we'll be fine."

Ruiz isn't in this to fail.

He's already established a working relationship with the local Little Leagues, and slashed prices at the concession stand.

In the coming days and weeks, a group of volunteers will canvas the region on foot, walking from door to door with flyers and schedules.

He'll try to reach out to pizza restaurants. He'll pitch promotional ideas. And ask for support until his lips fall off.

"We'll nail it," he said with the determination of a true mogul. "We'll nail it."

If only the "fans" shared his confidence.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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