Is Lagging Attendance a Crisis or Fluke?
Not yet, anyway.
Three weeks into the 2010 season, however, 19 of the 30 big league teams are reporting attendance drop offs.
Could it be weather-related? Maybe, but there were nine rainouts at big-league parks last year at this time and there have been only three this year.
Could it be competition from basketball and hockey? Maybe, but there is always competition from basketball and hockey in April and May.
Could it be just a couple of teams dragging the numbers down? Maybe, but it's hard to see, not with six different clubs having established new all-time lows for the facilities they call home -- the Orioles, the Mets, the Mariners, the Indians, the Nationals and the Blue Jays have all set new single-game attendance lows at home this season.
Could it be big-market teams doing well and small market teams struggling? Maybe, but the small-market Pittsburgh Pirates are up an average of 1,659 fans per game in statistics compiled by FanHouse, and the big-market New York Mets are down 6,690. The last-place Rangers are up 5,530 per game and the first-place A's are down 4,624.
Could it be a matter of fans not supporting teams who haven't won in a while? Maybe, but the Pirates are up significantly after having not won in 18 years and the Rays are down 3,216 despite a first-place record and a first-rate roster.
Could it be the economy? Maybe, but things are brighter economically in the U.S. (or so the economists say) this year than they were last year. The Dow Jones at the New York Stock Exchange is over 11,000; a year ago it was barely over 8,000. That's significant because corporations buy a substantial number of tickets -- one study suggests that up to two-thirds of all season tickets are purchased by corporations.
Still, the nation's jobless numbers make it clear that about one in every 10 workers is out of work. And without individuals having the wherewithal to purchase tickets, baseball is bound to suffer.
One of the teams showing the most improvement is Texas, despite the Rangers getting off to slow start in the American League West.
"The economy probably is a part of it,'' Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told FanHouse Monday. "Our local economy is better than some. Some markets have had big [economic] bubbles, and we haven't had that quite to the same degree.
"What we are seeing are the results of general optimism based on our offseason.''
Up in the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Mariners' numbers are down, but only slightly.
"One thing I think everybody agrees on is that it's the economy,'' Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. "Other economic signs are that things are getting better. Restaurants here are doing better. I'm hoping that's a good sign for us.''
The Mariners' attendance is basically flat -- down an average of less than 500 fans per game. And with Felix Hernandez bobblehead night being combined with the first appearance of former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee in a Seattle uniform when the club returns home Friday, that number should swing into the positive.
There are many clubs, however, where one big giveaway or new face isn't going to heal the early wounds. The Mets, the Marlins, the Padres, the White Sox, the Blue Jays and the A's are all down more than 4,000 fans per game over the first three weeks of the season and the Reds (3,977) and Indians (3,846) aren't far off.
In Oakland, general manager Billy Beane looks at the attendance from the first three weeks and said "you have to recognize it's a small sample size.''
Even with that being the case, Beane said that if the trend continues, it could be worrisome for baseball as a whole, and not just for small-market teams trying to make a go of it in tough economic times.
"I watched the Kansas City-Toronto game the other night, and it really struck me how small the crowd was,'' Beane said. "We've had plenty of nights like that in Oakland. My concern is that of the [fans'] perception of how the season will play out. People may be afraid to get emotionally involved with teams like that.
"Toronto is playing good ball and it's an interesting team to watch. But if you know the end of the story, why start reading the book?''
In other words the perception is that teams playing well -- the A's are in first place and the Jays are over .500 -- aren't teams that are going to be in contention may work to suppress attendance.
The Toronto baseball community is in the midst of a firestorm with the assertion in some quarters in the last week or so that the Jays would be better off moving south of the border. This is a team that once averaged 4 million fans per season when the SkyDome -- now known as the Rogers Centre -- was young and Jays were winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93.
The Blue Jays may be the victim of some emotional backlash from their fans, the result of having traded the team's best pitcher, Roy Halladay, over the winter to the Phillies. But it's more than that, because the Jays haven't seen an average of 30,000 fans per season since the late 1990s, Toronto's attendance juggernaut having been crushed by baseball's work stoppage of 1994-95.
"It's definitely different,'' Jays manager Cito Gaston told the Associated Press. "I was here in the glory years, or whatever you want to call it, when it was packed every night. It's kind of a shame to see it the way it is now.''
The one place where new fans are storming the gates this season is in Minneapolis, where the new Target Field has seen the Twins' attendance soar by 14,222 per game. American League attendance is down only 35 fans per game thanks to the Twins. Take the Target Field numbers out of the equation, however, and the other 13 AL teams are off an average of just under 900 fans per game. The National League, with no new parks to introduce in 2010, is off 1,070 per game.
Talking to the Associated Press Sports Editors last week, commissioner Bud Selig said that while turnstiles were slow now, baseball's advance ticket sales were up seven percent looking deeper into the season.
"We've had a little weather problem,'' Selig said, "a little here and there, but I feel pretty good about [attendance].''
Asked specifically about Toronto and other venues with big drop-offs, Selig said he'd noticed the low turnouts.
"It doesn't overly bother me,'' he said. "Some clubs it depends on winning and losing. But it's April, the schools are still in. When you are within one or two percent, it just doesn't add anything to get concerned about.''
Not yet. Maybe.