- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

The defining note in baseball's season so far has been the large swath of empty seats in ballparks coast to coast. Only 3,501 people showed up for the Montreal Expos' game Thursday night. The surprising Pittsburgh Pirates, leading the National League Central entering the weekend, are off last season's turnstile pace by more than 20 percent. Nine stadiums in all have posted their worst crowds in this first month.
It's a terrible indicator of the game's health. And it no doubt owes greatly to the game's rising ticket prices and a strange and horrific offseason that saw Major League Baseball try to kill the Minnesota and Montreal franchises, send hated owner Jeffrey Loria to Florida and ultimately take over the Expos itself.
But fans have shown up to watch baseball in tough times before, and even with this season's attendance off about 8 percent, 70 million will attend a game sometime this season. Offseason ticket sales for 2002 indicate that many slower-starting teams, such as Houston and Cleveland, soon will rebound.
This suggests that baseball, on top of all its other problems, is also learning a painful lesson now part of the normal business cycles in the NBA and NHL: the late-arriving fan. In all three sports, the regular season is a six-month marathon that at times seems interminable. And though a game in the first week of the season counts in the standings the same as one in the last week, NHL and NBA fans have long found it difficult to get excited about games before Christmas.
The NBA, in particular, knows this drill well. Each year play starts in the heart of the NFL season. Fans come out sporadically, and commissioner David Stern is spending the holidays defending the vitality of his league. By springtime, the NFL has finished, NBA playoff races intensify, hoops fans rekindle their interest and attendance picks back up. The NBA ended the 2001-02 regular season up 1 percent from last year, not a great number but unquestionably better than where it was four months ago.
Baseball now is experiencing the same dynamic, and it has been heightened by spurts of frigid weather in the Northeast and Midwest. Just look at the Baltimore Orioles. Their worst crowds of the year were for midweek games against lowly Tampa Bay in 40-degree weather just two weeks into the season. It's hard to think of that scene being any more different than a September Saturday against the New York Yankees in the heart of a pennant race. The Orioles' early season situation is being repeated leaguewide; 19 of 30 teams were trailing their attendance paces of a year ago entering this weekend.
"It just takes a while for the story for each team and each league to develop," said Declan Bolger, senior vice president of business operations for the Washington Capitals and a former employee of the Pirates. "When you have 81 [home] dates, or 41 dates, in front of you, it's very easy for a fan to procrastinate. It's something we have to deal with every year and certainly some of the baseball teams, too."
And that procrastination represents a slippery slope because once a fan stops attending games with any regularity, the risk of his stopping altogether is heightened.
Many NBA and NHL clubs have combatted the early-season fan resistance by more aggressively promoting those games, packaging them into bulk ticket plans with more attractive games later on and stacking the giveaway schedule more heavily in the season's first half. The NHL has shown more success with that of late, drawing its most even spread of fans this season in many years.
Can baseball repeat that feat? It's far too soon to say, and it's also impossible to know what the attendance numbers would be had the offseason not been so chaotic. But several teams, most notably St. Louis, Colorado and San Francisco, are attempting to break out of the rut. The Cardinals, Rockies and Giants have rolled out variable ticket pricing for 2002, placing their trust directly in the economic laws of supply and demand. Tickets for each team are more expensive for prime weekend summer games and less so for early season midweek contests.
Other teams have done less extensive ventures on the same idea. With $1 upper-deck tickets, discounted concessions and the New York Yankees in town, Oakland drew an Oakland Coliseum-record 54,513 Wednesday.
It's a simple premise and one that Broadway, ski resorts and amusement parks have all used for years. Sports leagues, however, have traditionally resisted variable pricing or deep discounts because it places value judgments on opponents that not only could be deemed offensive but also not hold true. New realities, however, require new thinking.
"Many teams are working on more discount programs for the earlier dates, the less obvious high-demand dates," said Matt Dryer, director of sales for the Orioles. Baltimore will hold numerous bargain nights this season, mostly before the All-Star break.
But as novel as the new ticket plans may be, there's one headline guaranteed to draw out more fans all year long: "Players, owners reach labor deal."
Just don't count on it.

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