- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

For six weeks, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been telling anyone who will listen about the sport’s recovery at the turnstiles this summer.

It is true that after a horrendous start to the season, MLB will finish with an average attendance of about 27,900 a game, not far behind 2002’s figure of 28,168. Following a springtime that included some brutal weather on the East Coast, the war in Iraq and a decidedly uneven economy, Selig is absolutely entitled to feel good about baseball’s short-term rise off the mat.

A closer look at the numbers, however, shows the baseball “renaissance” Selig so often trumpets still remains very much a work in progress. Among the key trends:

• Depending on how the final numbers for the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays turn out, as many as 16 teams will show declines from their 2002 attendance. That would mark the fourth straight year that at least as many teams posted falling totals as those who stayed flat or grew.

• Nine stadiums posted the lowest single-game crowds in their histories this season, including such showplaces as Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, PNC Park and Turner Field.

• Only five teams reached the coveted 3 million mark in home attendance, the lowest such number since 1996.

• Though baseball’s average attendance is staying essentially the same, the median figure has dropped about 4 percent. That means MLB is relying more than ever on attendance leaders such as the Yankees, Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox to prop up the entire sport.

It also means an expanding middle and lower-middle class for baseball. Once proud teams like Baltimore, Cleveland, the New York Mets and Texas — each in the recent past a top-10 team in attendance — now all rank 11th or worse. The Indians, in particular, have sunk to a lowly 24th.

The Toronto Blue Jays, the first team to draw 4 million fans, have not attracted half that figure since 1999.

Six teams — Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta, Colorado, St. Louis and Detroit — show at least three straight annual declines at the gate. And if Tampa Bay fails to match its 2002 total after today’s season finale, that will make seven teams.

Colorado has posted seven consecutive years of weakening drawing power, but the Orioles’ fall is probably the most glaring. With a final 2003 attendance of 2.45million, the Orioles drew fewer fans than in either of the strike-shortened years of 1994 and 1995, and registered an all-time low for Camden Yards and a sixth straight yearly decline. Baltimore’s 2003 total also marked the first time full-season attendance at Camden Yards ranked below any year at Memorial Stadium.

And as many locals know, this year’s meager sum was generously padded by visiting fans from New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Baseball was not without its success stories at the gate, fueled in part by the promise of four years of labor peace. The defending champion Anaheim Angels soared 32 percent to more than 37,500 a game. With universally respected Arte Moreno in place as new owner, the club appears primed for a long stay among MLB’s attendance leaders. The Florida Marlins, the unexpected National League wild card team, rose from oblivion and registered a jump of more than 50 percent.

Philadelphia, in the playoff hunt until last week, rose more than 35 percent and will post another increase next season when the Phillies move into Citizens Bank Park. Several stadiums posted all-time high crowds for a single game this season, including some that also posted all-time lows. Interleague play, though much debated because of the number of games played and its inconsistent effects on pennant races, also continues to be a bona fide winner at the turnstiles.

“I still tend to take an optimistic view on the sport,” said Rick Horrow, visiting professor of sports law at Harvard University. “Baseball has clearly gotten more creative in its marketing and is putting more money toward revenue sharing than ever. It is going to take some time for these factors to come fully into fruition. But at the macro level, this sport is without question healthier than it was a year ago.”

A number of teams also finally wised up to the fact that games on low-demand weekdays and contests against less popular teams should be priced differently than other games. While a number of teams, including the Orioles, now have a number of discount nights each season, a handful of clubs have responded to this notion by instead jacking up the prices of the high-demand games.

And cost clearly is an issue for baseball fans as lower-priced minor league baseball posted its second-best aggregate attendance figure in 102 years.

More broadly, MLB by its own admission is still finding its way in a sports/entertainment industry more demanding than ever of constant thrills.

“These numbers certainly are of concern,” said David Carter, a Los Angeles sports industry consultant and university lecturer. “They’d be of concern either way. We’re seeing erosion of the fan base. Even if they were rising, you’d worry about how to catch that lightning in a bottle and make that permanent. Baseball has tried very hard to replenish its fan base since the way it presents itself skews older than other sports. But so far, the other leagues have done a much better job of embracing the younger fan and giving them what they want.”

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