- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

ATLANTA Blue skies. Pleasant temperatures. The home team in first place. By all indications, a perfect day for baseball.

Yet nearly half the seats at Turner Field were empty, striking proof that a once-passionate baseball city has turned decidedly cool toward the sport.

The Atlanta Braves, winners of 11 straight division championships, once drew nearly 4 million fans in a season. If this keeps up, they'll barely reach 2 million.

"Before the game, you look around and see what kind of crowd you've got," outfielder Chipper Jones said after Sunday's game, which drew only 27,313 to 50,091-seat Turner Field. "I just think ticket prices have gotten so outlandish, it's tough for a family of four to come watch their team play."

The Braves aren't alone either.

Attendance is down throughout the major leagues, slipping 4.8 percent through Sunday's games compared to a similar point last year. And this comes on top of a 6 percent decline for the 2002 season.

More troubling, 21 of 30 teams are running behind for teams like the Braves, way behind their averages from last April.

Atlanta is averaging 24,133 through 16 home games, compared with 30,582 through the same number of dates a year ago. That's a decline of 21 percent hardly encouraging for a team that's already had five straight years of falling attendance since getting a spike with the move to Turner Field in 1997.

Every time the Baltimore Orioles take the field at home these days, they face the possibility of setting a record for the lowest attendance at Camden Yards. Like Atlanta, attendance has declined each of the past five seasons and is down 12 percent from last year, when the Orioles fell short of 3 million in a full season for the first time since the park opened in 1992, drawing 2.7 million.

Twice this season, the Orioles have drawn record-low crowds, most recently last Tuesday night when just 18,017 reportedly paid to see the opener of the White Sox series. Club officials provided that figure, but the actual number in the ballpark was less, as has been the case all season.

Ten other teams have experienced double-figure dropoffs, including the New York Yankees, down 16 percent, and Seattle Mariners, down 20 percent. Both teams lead their respective divisions.

The biggest fall has been in Cleveland, where that amazing Jacobs Field sellout streak is a distant memory. The Indians are down 30.7 percent this season, just ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers, where attendance is down 30.5 percent in Miller Park's second year.

Leanne and Marc Schneider brought their three children to a Braves game last week. Andrew, 12, Hayley, 9, and Justin, 5, thoroughly enjoyed themselves, but their parents can't afford many of these outings.

"It's expensive," Leanne Schneider said, her kids munching on hot dogs and snacks. "You bring a family, and it costs $40 to feed them. More like $50. It's at least $10 apiece for a hot dog.

"We come at least once a year. If it were less expensive, we would come more often. The kids love it. It's a real treat."

The Braves have drawn only one crowd larger than 30,000 the Opening Day turnout of 40,244. Since then, they haven't done better than 29,777 for a Saturday night game against National League East rival Philadelphia. Three early-season games drew less than 20,000.

Paul Adams, the director of ticket sales, admitted being concerned about the slow start at the turnstiles, but he was confident that crowds will improve now that the war in Iraq is essentially over.

"People were not concentrating on baseball during the month of March when they normally buy tickets in advance because of the war," Adams said. "Now that the war has broke, hey, it's time to enjoy themselves and come to a ballgame."

A sluggish economy also has hurt attendance. Atlanta was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country during the '90s, but it has been hit hard by layoffs and corporate losses the past few years.

"I think the war and economy are the two big factors," Adams said. "If you look at our attendance, we're not at the top of the pack, but we're not at the bottom either. I feel pretty good after the first month. I think we kind of held our own. I'm anticipating better attendance for the month of May."

Still, the Braves ranked only 12th in the NL and 20th overall in average attendance after the weekend. That's a far cry from the bull market that began in 1991, when the team began its unprecedented streak of division titles.

After drawing less than a million fans in 1990 for a last-place team, attendance surged to more than 2 million in the worst-to-first season. In '92, the Braves drew more than 3 million for the first time in franchise history. That was followed by almost 3.9 million in 1993, when old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was virtually sold out for the season.

In 1994, the Braves were averaging more than 47,000 a game when the strike ended the season. Like many teams, they have never fully recovered.

Winning alone doesn't appear to sell in Atlanta, so officials have taken several steps to boost attendance. There are 2-for-1 tickets. A family of four can see a game including drinks, hot dogs, programs and a parking pass for as little as $49 on certain nights.

Even so, attendance has continued to fall in Atlanta and elsewhere.

"I think the game itself will be fine," said Jones, who contributes to the high prices with his $90 million contract. "But something has to be done. I don't know what it is."

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