As incredible as it may seem, the evidence seems to show that the appeal of the New York Yankees, for decades the most popular sports franchise in the country, may be on the decline.
Although in 2012 they once again led the American League in attendance, the Yankees ran second to the Philadelphia Phillies overall, and their average per-game home attendance of 43,733 translates to 87 percent of the capacity of Yankee Stadium 3.0. And over the past four seasons, since the opening of the new, smaller, higher-priced ballpark, attendance has steadily declined, from a high of 3,765,807 in 2010, following the club's World Championship in 2009, to just over 3.5 million last year, a drop of over 6 percent.
Most teams would be thrilled with the Yankees attendance numbers but for a club that routinely turned customers away nightly in a much bigger park before the move, the downturn must come as a shock. Their recent falling-out with StubHub, spun by the organization as more "fan-friendly," is really just a desperate attempt to hold onto season-ticket holders, many of whom bought their seats on a speculative basis hoping to make a killing on the secondary market.
So, too, must the results of a poll we ran yesterday on ESPNNewYork.com in which we asked which of the following five stories -- "Can the Knicks go deep into the playoffs?;" "Can the Jets do anything right?;" "Can the Giants reboot and come back better than ever?;" "Assuming they play, can the Rangers hoist the Cup?," and "Can the old, cheap Yankees make a run?" -- was of the most interest to you, our readers, the Yankees question finished a lackluster third, barely edging out the Giants.
(I didn't write the question; direct your compliments or complaints to the editorial staff.)
The issue hardly seems open to dispute; the Yankees simply are not as popular as they once were, or maybe the fan base is a little less fanatical. The question is, why?
I have a few thoughts:
No. 1: The most obvious, of course, is the price of tickets. Clearly, the new ballpark was priced to attract a certain type of fan (read: wealthy) and to exclude most others, or at least banish them to their homes, where they are free to watch the YES Network. Provided, of course, they pay their cable or satellite bill. But that only explains the drop in attendance, not the perceived general lack of interest.
No. 2: The perception that ownership is no longer as committed to winning as it once was, reinforced greatly by Hal Steinbrenner's decree to trim payroll to a "mere" $189 million by 2014. It could be that the legion of Boss disciples, raised on the belief that winning is more important than breathing, have decided to seek fresh air elsewhere.
No. 3: The perception that the team is too old/not good enough to truly contend for a World Championship, a suspicion bolstered by the seas of empty seats at Yankee Stadium for the ALCS against Detroit. Could be that many fans thought the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
No. 4: People may just be ready to move on to the Next Big Thing. I've seen this happen before, having covered the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks of the early 90s, during their heyday under Pat Riley. For a good five years, the Garden was the place to be, to see and be seen, by just about anyone who was anyone in New York City. And then, after Ewing retired and the team began to decline, so, too, did the crowds. It has taken them nearly 10 years and a very good start to the 2012-2013 season, for the building to begin to resemble the beehive it was from 1994-1999.
Between 1999 and 2009, Yankee Stadium was very much like the Garden was in 1994 (remember, the 1996 Championship team drew "only" 2.2 million to the old Stadium and they didn't top 3 million until they had won two World Series) and if the team fails to make the playoffs this season, or like last year, squeezes in but falls flat again, the place could start to resemble the Garden in 2005.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you feel as if the Yankees have lost some popularity in recent years, and if so, why?