Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Staying Away In Droves

The eminent philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "If the fans don't come out to the ball park, you can't stop them."

Indeed. And it appears nobody's stopping them in places like Cincinnati and San Diego, where teams in the playoff hunt are playing to a lot of empty seats--or, in the case of the Padres, a lot of seats filled by fans of the opposing team.

The last couple of nights have seen an awful lot of Cubs fans at Petco Park as Chicago has badly damaged San Diego's playoff hopes. When the Giants played a key series in San Diego earlier this month, it sometimes sounded like a Bay Area crowd had taken over the place.

The Padres, who've led the division for most of the season, will end up drawing a bit over 2 million fans (up by 200,000 from last year). By contrast, the Giants will top 3,000,000 in a ballpark of roughly the same size.

What's going on here? Padres brass admit they're still trying to win over a fan base that may still be skeptical after years of cheapskate decision-making. But it might go deeper than that. San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa quotes Padres CEO Jeff Moorad as saying the fans are migrating toward less-expensive tickets.

In other words, even with a better product on the field, even with the prospects of a better team in the future, and even in the heat of a pennant race, Padres fans are watching their wallets. And they're apparently not alone. The New York Times reports overall MLB attendance will drop again this year, making it three straight down seasons at the turnstiles.

Sure, a few teams are up. But the fact that pennant-chasing franchises like San Diego, Cincinnati (which drew 12,000 fans for a recent game), Tampa Bay and even Atlanta are playing to less-than-full houses certainly ought to get the attention of the sport's moguls.

San Diego's Moorad is a smart guy. He's a former player's agent who knows the game from many angles. He's onto something. Baseball (and other pro sports) need to wake up to a new reality: the gravy train has ended. The Golden Goose isn't laying eggs any more. Fans are facing the reality of a re-calibrated economy and pennant race or not, they are watching their dollars very carefully.

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