Tebow leaving, but game goes on

The impact Tim Tebow has made in Columbia goes well beyond what the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback provided on the baseball diamond.

It’s been an economic boon for the Columbia Fireflies as well as the rest of the South Atlantic League. Fans at home and on the road have worn Tebow merchandise from his playing days at Florida, his NFL career and his very familiar No. 15 Fireflies jersey.

Tebow’s time in Columbia ended Sunday when the New York Mets organization promoted him to Class A-Advanced St. Lucie Mets of the Florida State League following the Fireflies game against Kannapolis.

“Obviously as a fan, I’m sad to see him leave but understand that’s the nature of minor-league baseball,” said John Cribb, who was wearing a Tebow Fireflies jersey. “He’s made the most of his opportunity here. I think a lot of fans have come out because of Tebow and will continue to come even after he’s gone.”

That is the hope of Fireflies president John Katz. Tebow has been an attendance boost for the Fireflies and the rest of the South Atlantic League. The Fireflies were averaging 5,230 fans a game entering Sunday’s contest after averaging 3,785 fans during their inaugural season of 2016.

Last week, the Fireflies played in Greenville and Charleston, and both franchises drew more than 20,500 fans for the three-game series.

But the full impact of what Tebow meant to attendance will not be felt until next season. Then the Fireflies front office will be able to compare the numbers from this season to what they draw next year when it’s unlikely Tebow will be back in Columbia.

“It will be difficult to measure until tomorrow’s game a year from now,” Katz said of Tebow’s impact. “That way we will be able to tell. The first year in the market, (we were) kind of feeling things out. People didn’t know how to find us and figure out there’s this beautiful ballpark on Bull Street. Throughout the course of last season, with 261,000 fans and another 46,000 coming for special events, word got out. Until we get to this time next year, we’ll be able to put some numbers to it.”

Mario Bailey, a head usher who worked last season as well, believes Tebow has made a difference but thinks fans will continue to show up at Spirit Communications Park.

“It’s been a combination of both, but from a marketing perspective, Tebow’s presence has increased attendance by about a third,” Bailey said. “But I think people will continue to come. The Fireflies have been winning and that always brings out a crowd. This town is developed around winning. USC baseball is a good example.”

Tebow has enjoyed his time in Columbia and working with the Fireflies organization.

“Wherever you are, hopefully the people are the best part. I’m a people person. The people here have been great – the fans, everybody involved with the Fireflies have been awesome and I have some great relationships from it,” Tebow said.

“The goal is when you’re somewhere, hopefully you leave it a little bit better than you found it. Hopefully, that was the case here. But the people here had a great impact on me as well. It’s a great town, a great city and a lot of really awesome people. They had a big impact on me so I’m very grateful, but I’m still not a Gamecocks fan.”

Unlike in Columbia, the Mets organization owns the St. Lucie franchise and could see a boost in their attendance. St. Lucie is averaging 1,772 fans, currently fifth in the Florida State League. St. Lucie plays at First Data Field, which has a capacity of 7,160.

St. Lucie has an off day Monday and will return to action against the Palm Beach Cardinals Tuesday.

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