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Gwinnett Braves plan on dramatic attendance boost

Their future home is still just a hole in the ground, but the Gwinnett Braves have already received nearly 1,500 deposits for season tickets.

Soon, those fans and others will start to see the new ballpark for the Atlanta Braves' Class AAA minor league team take shape.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the stadium is scheduled for June 3 and the 10,000-capacity facility is on track to be ready for the start of the International League season next April.

"We're confident that we'll be ready to play ball," Atlanta Braves executive vice president for business operations Mike Plant said Friday. "The hole for the stadium has been dug and the final design has almost been finished. You'll start to see vertical construction shortly after the groundbreaking."

The Atlanta Braves announced in January that they were moving their top minor league team from Richmond, Va., to Gwinnett County for the 2009 season.

The site for the new stadium, which is being built by the county at a cost of $45 million, is off Buford Drive southeast of Interstate-85 near Lawrenceville and only about 35 miles from Turner Field in Atlanta.

The Braves moved their Class AA Southern League team from Greenville, S.C., to a suburb of Jackson, Miss., in 2005. "We are ahead in Gwinnett of where we were with that move," Plant said.

The move to a new stadium in Mississippi didn't create a giant attendance increase, but that isn't expected to be the case in Gwinnett. Despite a team that won the International League Governor's Cup last season and is in first place in its division this year, Richmond is last in Class AAA attendance.

Going into its present homestand, Richmond had an attendance of just 68,624 in 21 dates. The average of 3,267 was more than 700 worse than Charlotte, which was 13th in the 14-team International League.

Louisville leads the International League with an average attendance of 9,030. Nine teams have drawn more than 6,000 per game.

With the move to Gwinnett, the Braves expect to be in the upper half of the International League in attendance - something they rarely were in Richmond recently.

"We expect attendance to be robust not just the first year, when everything is new, but for the seasons to come," Plant said. "The area is an ideal market for minor league baseball."

Richmond, the site of the Braves' top minor league team since 1966, opened The Diamond in 1985 and drew well in the 1990s. But attendance declined to 342,000 last season and will fall well short of that this year.

"I think everyone is really excited about moving to a new ballpark," Richmond manager Dave Brundage. "The facilities will be so much better and it will be great to play before big crowds."

The Gwinnett Braves have received more than 1,400 non-refundable deposits of $100 for the right to buy up to four season tickets. If the deposits generate 3,000 season tickets, that alone would be more than a 50 percent increase from this season in Richmond.

The Gwinnett Braves have not set ticket prices for 2009 yet.

"We will contact those who have requested season tickets during the summer after we have final seat information," Plant said.

The International League is holding territorial rights to Richmond in case the ballpark in Gwinnett isn't ready, but the Braves hope to be able to dispense with that contingency this summer.

"We don't want to do anything to hurt Richmond from getting a new team for next season," Plant said.

Richmond is expected to drop down to the Class AA Eastern League or the Class A Carolina League. Gwinnett County, meanwhile, will be just one step from the major leagues.

"I think it will be great to have the AAA team so close to Atlanta," Brundage said. "I know that I'm looking forward to it."

SideBar: Low Attendence

The Richmond Braves, who will move to Gwinnett County next season, rank last in the 14-team Class AAA International League in attendance:

Team

Average

Louisville

9,030

Lehigh Valley

7,135

Columbus

6,683

Buffalo

6,669

Scranton/W-B

6,435

Toledo

6,366

Pawtucket

6,314

Durham

6,163

Indianapolis

6,145

Norfol

5,042

Rochester

4,618

Syracuse

4,428

Charlotte

3,981

Richmond

3,267

Note: Attendance through Wednesday