- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2000

Baseball's recovery process from the 1994-95 players' strike is nearing completion. Attendance this season is up 5.8 percent from the same point last year and it is closely approaching pre-strike levels.

After the ugly 232-day strike ended in April 1995, fans showed their displeasure with an immediate 20 percent drop in attendance. Since then the game has made a slow climb back toward the record levels of 1993-94. There was a small step backward last year, but that was attributed to fast-climbing ticket prices.

This season, thanks in part to a unprecedented levels of low-cost ticket promotions and the game's continued offensive explosion, average attendance is up to 28,197 per game. Assuming that mark rises another 10 percent this summer historically attendance makes that jump because most schools are out and the weather is warmer baseball this year will post its highest average attendance since 1994 when the average before the strike was 31,612.

The National League's recovery at the gate has been faster than in the AL because of the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home run duels. The NL is on pace to break its total attendance mark of 38.4 million set in 1998.

"This says a lot about the game of baseball. The game has shown a lot of stability since the strike, and interest is rising in steadily increasing numbers," said Richard Levin, a spokesman for Major League Baseball. "We've passed 70 million in total attendance the last two years, and will definitely do that again this year. We're in the middle of a great renaissance of the game."

Predictably, San Francisco, Detroit and Houston, each playing this season in new stadiums, lead the charge in gate increases. The Giants, now playing in the lush Pac Bell Park instead of cold, windy 3Com Park have more than doubled average attendance to nearly 41,000, and most seats for the rest of their season already are sold.

The Cincinnati Reds, who traded this past winter for Queen City-native Ken Griffey Jr., have seen average attendance grow by 77 percent to 33,886.

Large market teams such as both New York clubs, Arizona and Texas continue to find new ways to pack fans into their parks. Several smaller markets have also succeeded in drawing more fans.

The Kansas City Royals, 14-4 at home with nine walk-off wins, have boosted Kauffman Stadium attendance by 17 percent, the Pittsburgh Pirates are up by 7 percent and the Montreal Expos, playing under new owner Jeffrey Loria, are up 25 percent so far this season.

Baseball, however, is still struggling with several problem markets. The Expos' attendance boost still leaves the club with an average draw of only 14,078, second-worst in baseball. Minnesota, Milwaukee, Tampa Bay and Toronto are all down sharply compared to this point last year. Milwaukee moves into a new stadium next spring, but the Twins, Devil Rays and Blue Jays have no plans for new stadiums on the horizon to help their causes.

"We probably got hit [with the strike] at the worst possible time. We were coming off three seasons of 4 million in attendance and two world titles," said Toronto Blue Jays spokesman Howard Starkman. "We had three sub-.500 seasons right after, and lost a lot of season tickets. We're still sort of reconnecting with the fan base."

The vital signs look good for nearly two-thirds of the league's teams, but industry observers still are looking for a breakout story to resonate with the general public. Experts say that casual fans drawn in by the Sosa-McGwire clashes will find no such excitement from the early success of Randy Johnson or the Atlanta Braves this season.

"The attitudes about the strike have really subsided significantly, and the game's executives have done a much better job marketing the sport and its stars, and making the game more approachable," said Bob Flood, advertising executive with New York-based DeWitt Media. "But interest takes off only when you succeed in going beyond your hard-core base of fans. It's still early, but nothing has really happened yet this year to do that."

Despite the increased interest in the game, some baseball observers braced for some problems at the gate as average ticket prices soared 12 percent this year to $16.67 per seat. Sitting close to the action at many parks can easily top $50 per seat, but numerous ticket promotions offered by each team can drop an upper-deck seat to under $6, and those have been warmly received.

The Baltimore Orioles' average of 40,881, third best in baseball, is flat compared to the same point last year.

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