Blue Jays fans have invaded Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field in 2013. (The Canadian Press)BUFFALO – It seems to be a match made in heaven, one that took years to finally come to fruition. A new logo, new players, and new affiliation have added up to big business for the Buffalo Bisons. The Triple-A baseball team is in the first year of a new partnership with the Toronto Blue Jays.
It didn’t take long to see the positive effects of the deal, for the teams on both sides of the border.
“It’s been great. Our attendance is up . . . When we compare game-to-game we’re probably going to be up about 1,000 a game,” said Bisons vice president and general manager Mike Buczkowski.
“It’s done everything we hoped it would do from a business standpoint. There’s more Canadians coming here and more fans from Buffalo and Western New York going to Toronto.”
On any given game day at Coca-Cola Field – a beautiful minor-league park with a big-league feel and amenities – there are Blue Jays jerseys and t-shirts throughout the crowds of 10,000+. Buczkowski says Canadians in the Niagara region have always made the trip to see affordable baseball in Buffalo, but the Blue Jays affiliation has brought even more fans across the border.
“We attribute a lot of [the increase] to Canadian fans,” Buczkowski said. “Probably of that increase from what we can tell, almost half of that is Canadian fans. The others are just fans from Western New York who want to see a competitive team.”
The Bisons were the top affiliate of the New York Mets up until last year. And despite being the feeder team for a fellow New York team with a long history, there’s more love for the Blue Jays.
“Far more [Blue Jays] jerseys than Mets last year,” Buczkowski said. “But there’s always been Blue Jays jerseys here from people that are just baseball fans who come down, but far more this year.
“What we’re seeing with Canadian fans coming down is, Toronto is a major-league baseball market, we’re seeing more of their fans who want to come down to specifically see Ricky Romero pitch, they want to see [Kyle] Drabek pitch.”
The on-field results have been promising, too. The Bisons are fighting for a playoff spot with just a couple weeks left in the season. As of Monday, they trailed the first-place Rochester Red Wings by 3.5 games in their division, and are just 1.5 games behind in the wild-card race.
Success at the Triple-A level is a double-edged sword for most teams and players. Major-league rosters are the No. 1 priority, regardless of minor-league pennant races. Just last week, during a crucial homestand against the Red Wings, the Blue Jays recalled Munenori Kawasaki, Kevin Pillar and Anthony Gose from Buffalo. It can make fielding competitive teams at all levels a difficult balancing act.
“We know the major-league team comes first,” said Buczkowski, who has been the Bisons’ GM since 1994. “We know that’s what we’re here for first. We know we’re here for development. And there is nobody happier than everyone in our organization when a guy gets called up.
“One of the things the Jays understand about Buffalo is that we have two major-league teams here so people want to see us win – they know when we lose a guy, let’s get another guy here whether it’s a kid up from Double-A or a free-agent player. They’ve been great about that. They’ve made moves in season … that kept us with a chance with a couple weeks left to still make the playoffs. The Jays have done a great job in replenishing our roster. “
The constant movement of players makes marketing a Blue Jays jerseys at Coca-Cola Field. (Ian Denomme/Yahoo! Sports)challenge as well. Last week the Bisons “took a bit of a gamble” and had a Kawasaki t-shirt give away. The next day, he was gone. It could have just as easily happened the day of or day before.
“A lot of what we do in our marketing usually does not focus on individual players,” Buczkowski said. “With the advent of social media we’re able to do stuff on the fly when we get a rehab guy. But rarely will you ever see us use a player image in an ad. . . It’s a little bit more ‘Catch tomorrow’s Blue Jays today.’”
When Blue Jays star Jose Reyes was rehabbing his ankle injury in Buffalo, some quick-thinking marketing combined with an already-planned promotion resulted in sellout crowds of 18,000.
The benefits of the affiliation are obvious and have paid immediate dividends. So what took so long for them to get together? It was really just a matter of timing.
“[The Blue Jays] were in Syracuse for such a long time,” Buczkowski said. “Toronto just was never on the map because of that long-standing relationship [with Syracuse]. It was a great thing for the Jays. So we went with Cleveland and we had all kinds of success with Cleveland, for 14 years we never even really looked to chance our affiliation.”
The Blue Jays’ affiliation with the Syracuse Cheifs lasted from 1978 to 2008. With the Bisons committed to the Indians, the Blue Jays signed an agreement with the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League. The Blue Jays spent 2009 to 2012 in Vegas. Meanwhile, the Indians moved their Triple-A team to Columbus and Buffalo went looking for a new partner. They found one in the Mets while the Blue Jays were in Vegas. Finally, last summer the timing was right and the teams got together.
“Everything they’ve done with their system and being successful at the minor-league level, it made it a pretty easy decision for us,” Buczkowski said.