The shrinking gate
Attendance down again, but officials not panicking yetPosted: Wednesday May 15, 2002 12:07 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
The baseball people in Boston and in the Bronx have not felt the sting. In Seattle and L.A., and in a few more places, it is business -- good, solid baseball business -- as usual.
But in a lot of spots, from Baltimore to Atlanta, from Cleveland to San Francisco, baseball is hurting. Attendance at Major League Baseball games is down a sorrowful 5.4 percent from last season. All you have to do is check out those thousands and thousands of empty seats on television each night to know that something bad is afoot.
"It's disturbing," says Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz, whose team has drawn almost 66,000 fewer fans than it did last season at this time. "It's disconcerting."
Baseball is keeping a close watch on the early-season numbers, running them each week, comparing them to last year, trying to determine the reasons why so many seats are going unsold. Officials are concerned, it's safe to say, though the bigger impression they leave is this: Let's not get too carried away.
"It really isn't appropriate to look at this on a month-to-month or week-to-week basis because the factors vary so much -- who the teams play, the number of home dates Ö," says baseball spokesman Vince Wladika. "The only way to look at this is at the conclusion of the season."
Still, the numbers are eye opening. Eighteen of the 30 teams have drawn fewer fans at this point of the season than they did last season. In Texas, 176,710 more fans came to see the Rangers in the early part of last season than have seen them this season.
Milwaukee, the site of this season's All-Star Game and the home base of commissioner Bud Selig, is down by almost 150,000 fans. Cleveland, which saw a string of 455 straight sellouts at Jacobs Field snapped last season, is short more than 124,000 fans.
The numbers, taken at face value, appear to paint a picture of a sport in decline.
Baseball officials aren't buying that picture, though.
"So many times I've heard this game to be in a time of crisis," says Mark Shapiro, the general manager of the Indians. "I think this is just a natural ebb and flow."
Every baseball city has its unique problems. In Arlington, Texas, for instance, the Rangers may be feeling a kind of sophomore attendance slump after the much ballyhooed signing of superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez before last season. In places like Milwaukee and Detroit and Pittsburgh, the aura of a new stadium has worn off. The same is true in Baltimore, where the stadium that was in the forefront of baseball's recent building renaissance, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, has had more than 68,000 fewer fans this year.
It doesn't help, of course, that none of those teams is winning. Of the 18 teams that have lost attendance compared to last season, only five had winning records going into this week's games.
Yet winning hasn't mattered in places like South Florida, where attendance for the Florida Marlins, who lead the National League East, is down almost 100,000 from last season. Winning hasn't made a difference in Cincinnati, either (down almost 79,000), where the Reds are the surprise leaders of the NL Central.
But a system that many people believe gives an unfair advantage to teams in more lucrative markets also could be hurting baseball at the turnstiles. A weakened product, perhaps due to too many teams and not enough talent, is often mentioned. And many people suspect that the very real possibility of a work stoppage later this year is preying on the paying public's mind.
"It's definitely not time to declare Armageddon," Shapiro says. "I donít think any of those things, at this moment, are compelling, singular attributable reasons for the negative numbers Ö"
Baseball officials steadfastly reject any notion that fans have lost interest in the game. They point to the April television ratings, which show that 52 million people watched national telecasts in the game's opening month -- a whopping increase of 31 percent from last season. They also claim an increase of 14 percent for fans between 12 and 17.
"Our sport's fan base is strong and growing stronger," says Bob DuPuy, president of Major League Baseball. "It bodes extremely well for our future to see that more teenagers are watching our games."
Like many others in the game, Schuerholz says his team is keeping close tabs on attendance both at home and on the road. He, too, is inclined to take a wait-and-see approach. Baseball generally enjoys greater crowds in the summer months, when the weather is warmer and schools are not in session.
Still, he is concerned because attendance has slipped in Atlanta for four straight years as Braves fans have become accustomed -- and, perhaps, bored -- with a team that has won a division title for 10 straight seasons. He also knows that, when ticket revenue declines, the team's bottom line becomes endangered. And that could mean some kind of cost-cutting measures ahead. Maybe even a trim for the team's payroll.
Cleveland has its own problems. Shapiro dismantled a winning but aging and overpaid team in the offseason and is in the process of rebuilding it. That means he has to win over fans. It hasn't been easy.
Whatever the case, the drop in numbers is there for everyone to see, in the teams' balance sheets and in the stadiums throughout the game. No one knows whether attendance will improve. Everyone knows that, right now, the numbers are not very good.
Before a recent game in Atlanta, Braves president Stan Kasten talked about the early season attendance figures and what they meant. Like a lot of people in and around baseball, he has hunches but no concrete answers. But he did know one thing.
As he discussed the numbers while standing behind home plate at Turner Field, he turned to the large patches of empty blue seats in the stands, less than an hour before gametime, and raised his arms.
"I'm not," he said, "making this up."