Shrinking Mariners crowds parallel baseball trend
Three of the four smallest crowds in Safeco Field history came during the Mariners' opening homestand, but there's no reason to panic yet. Other clubs are seeing the same worrisome trend.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
The Mariners' just-completed homestand was a huge success by most measures. The team rebounded from a loss to Oakland in the home opener to win seven of its next eight games. By the time the M's left Safeco Field for Chicago, they had climbed into a tie for first place after a horrible 2-6 start to their season.
But one aspect of the homestand was ominous for Seattle. In a six-game span from Wednesday, April 14 through last Tuesday, the Mariners drew three of the four smallest crowds in the 10 ½-year-plus history of Safeco Field.
The M's start at the gate is similar to their start on the field: It's far too early to draw definitive conclusions. When you look at the entire homestand, in fact, you see they drew 230,822 fans to Safeco Field for nine dates — down just 4,198 total from their first nine dates of 2009. That averages out to 466 fewer fans per night, hardly a sign of mass defections.
The Mariners are fighting the same forces as the rest of baseball — a national economic downturn that has cut into the disposable income of potential fans. And after a span of four last-place finishes in five years from 2004 to 2008, the club's season-ticket base is down precipitously from the golden years that followed the opening of Safeco Field in July 1999.
The Mariners, combining the lure of Safeco with exciting and successful teams, drew more than 3 million fans for four straight years (2000 to 2003), peaking with 3.54 million in 2002 (an average of 43,710 fans a night).
Since then, they have been in slow but steady decline, down to 2,196,461 last year (27,117 a night), a drop of 1.3 million fans total, and 16,000 fans a night, over the course of seven seasons.
Combine that with April and May traditionally being the slowest months for the Mariners (school, weather); their terrible start leading into the homestand; and the presence of the worst team in the league, Baltimore, for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday dates, and it gives some texture to their small crowds.
There's plenty of time for recovery, especially if the team continues to contend. If not, the Mariners will have little chance of avoiding their seventh attendance decline in the last eight years. The only exception was their 88-win 2007 season, in which attendance bumped up 191,110 from 2006 only to plummet by more than 300,000 in the disaster of 2008.
Looking around baseball, the Mariners have plenty of company in the empty-seat category. Already this year, the Blue Jays, Indians and Orioles have, like the Mariners, experienced the smallest crowds in the history of their ballparks. So have the Nationals and Mets, but their stadiums are so new that it hardly counts.
It's shocking to see the Orioles and Indians ranking 11th and 14th in American League attendance, averaging 20,941 and 16,033 a game, respectively. As was the case with the Mariners and Blue Jays, there was a time when Baltimore and Cleveland set the standard in major-league attendance.
Playing at fabulous Camden Yards, which ushered in the golden age of retro ballparks, the Orioles averaged more than 40,000 fans a night from 1992 to 2000. And the Indians, coinciding with the opening of sparkling Jacobs Field, set a major-league record with 455 consecutive sellouts from June 12, 1995 to April 4, 2001.
Those days are distant memories, as is the three-year stretch, from 1991 to 1993, in which the Blue Jays drew more than 4 million fans annually to their new palace, the SkyDome, and won two World Series the process.
Indians general manager Mark Shapiro recently noted that the lure of a new stadium wears off after three or four years, as multitudes of teams have found out. The Orioles and Blue Jays, fighting a losing battle against the AL East superpowers, have had long stretches of futilely competing in the division, while the Indians alienated fans by selling off players like CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and have hit hard times.
It's worth pointing out that baseball is hardly experiencing a fan exodus. Last year's total draw of 73,418,479 was rightly hailed by commissioner Bud Selig as a remarkable achievement in light of the economic crisis. It represented a decline of 6.6 percent from the previous year, but some of that was attributable to the lower capacity in the new Yankees and Mets stadiums (seating approximately 1.5 million fewer than the old ballparks).
Played out against a 26-year high of 9.7 percent unemployment in August, it was hardly the disaster that some had forecast.
I crunched the numbers through Thursday's games and found that 20 out of 30 teams have experienced attendance drops through the same period from a year ago. But look deeper, and it's not quite as dire as it sounds.
Five of the declines (Cubs, Nationals, Red Sox, Tigers and Mariners) were fewer than 1,000 fans per game. The biggest drops belong to the Mets (down 7,000 fans per game), Padres (down 6,317), Marlins (down 5,220), White Sox (down 5,039) and Blue Jays (down 4,146).
Those numbers obviously will add up over the course of the season if the trends hold up. It should be noted that while the Dodgers, Braves and Rangers have experienced healthy attendance gains thus far, and the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals, Phillies and Cubs remain attendance juggernauts, the Minnesota Twins are almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the numbers reasonable. Selling out brand-new Target Field on a nightly basis, they are up 15,765 fans per night over the first nine dates, a total increase of 205,237.
Total attendance for the 234 total dates through Thursday was 6,699,993, down a total of 140,269 from the same 234-date span in 2009. In other words, the attendance decline averages out to 599 fans per game.
That's certainly nothing for baseball to celebrate. But considering the economic times, it provides some hope that the sport can hold its own for another year.
|How low can M's go?|
|Three of four smallest crowds in Safeco Field history came during a six-game span during the Mariners' opening homestand this season:|
|1||14,528||April 19, 2010||Orioles|
|2||15,818||May 6, 2008||Rangers|
|3||15,931||April 20, 2010||Orioles|
|4||15,978||April 14, 2010||A's|
|5||15,989||May 2, 2007||White Sox|
|6||16,034||May 19, 2009||Angels|
|7||16,102||May 8, 2006||Rays|
|8||16,373||Sept. 17, 2009||White Sox|
|9||16,431||May 4, 2009||Rangers|
|10||16,477||April 22, 2009||Rays|
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
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