JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Johnson City Doughboys and the Burlington Sock Puppets will battle it out to decide the 2023 Appalachian League champion Wednesday night, bringing a close to the league’s third year under the summer collegiate format.

After the league’s 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic, the MLB Single-A affiliates left town, and the new Appy League was created with new teams designed to give young collegiate players a place to improve.

At the onset of the 2021 season, the future of the Appalachian League was uncertain, but a strong 2023 season saw exciting action on the field and record crowds in the stands.

Chris Allen, President of Boyd Sports LLC, which owns the Doughboys and teams in Kingsport, Greeneville and Elizabethton, said the league is coming off its most successful season.

“Attendance is up 33 percent across the board this year, so it’s been a great year for all the teams,” Allen said. “It’s the same show, same atmosphere. You’ve got a lot of the same fun promotions. I think the ability to identify and relate to some of the players has been better across the board with the summer collegiate college kids than it was with the pro kids.”

The uncertainty of the new league was present for Kiva Fuller, the original Doughboys General Manager who now works the same job for the Elizabethton River Riders.

In 2021, Johnson City had 59,200 fans in the stands at TVA Credit Union Ballpark. In 2023, they shattered that at 83,802 before the championship game.

“There was [uncertainty] in the beginning, but it’s just like anything you start,” Fuller said. “So, you start year one and then you learn from year one, and then you regroup for year two, same thing has happened for year three”

Allen said it took fans a bit to adjust to losing the MLB affiliates.

“I think it had a lot to do with the uncertainty of going from professional to summer collegiate,” Allen said. “I think you had fans that were die-hard, in this case, Cardinals fans here.”

Teams had to get creative to get fans out to the ballpark, offering different promotions and even getting a lovable mascot like Rocky the Bat Dog in Johnson City.

“They may not be paying attention to what goes on on the field, but they’re having fun between our different on-field contests, our video board promotions,” said current Johnson City GM Patrick Ennis.

That and stellar on-field performance has helped Johnson City set their single-game attendance record this season as well.

Allen said Kingsport also broke records. He said Elizabethton and Greeneville would have if not for rainouts.

For the baseball purist, team executives said they are getting a better on-field product as the league builds credibility.

“The college coaches around the league now are more aware of what the Appalachian League is trying to do for these young players,” Fuller said.

50 Appalachian League graduates have been drafted by MLB teams in the new league’s first three years.

Allen said that creates the recipe for a bright future.

“The quality of play is fantastic,” Allen said. “It’s growing and getting better each and every year, the fan attendance, the community support.”

The season may be coming to a close, but Ennis said teams are already looking ahead to next year.

“Everything is learning and trying to make it bigger and better,” Ennis said. “My number one goal is as long as folks are having fun, then we’re doing our job.”