The bad bounce baseball can't ignore

Posted by ESPN's Claire Smith

On April 20, the Associated Press reported that MLB's average attendance over the first two weeks of the season was 30,298 (183 games), a drop of 6.9 percent from last year's final figure of 32,539.

Time will tell whether the traditional flurry of cold, rainy weather in the Midwest and Northeast helped dampen the numbers. It will also tell if the figures fail to rise with the temperatures, because of scary, weather-proof economic elements: the recession, ticket-price revolt, conservative spending trends as Americans hold on to their expendable income.

The teams that seldom vary in attendance -- Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox -- are holding steady. The Phillies are benefiting from their world championship, upping their average from 42,254 a year ago to 44,215 in the first seven games this year. And the Brewers are doing amazingly well following their return to the postseason for the first time since 1982, pulling in a 35,366 a game (six dates).

Commissioner Bud Selig told the AP he was pleased with opening-week figures overall. Still, away from those hubs, one can note some disturbing anecdotal evidence that all is far from well:

  • On April 17, only 8,790 attend the Marlins-Pirates game in Pittsburgh, the "sixth-smallest" paid attendance in park history according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Pirates' average of 17,859 through eight games was a major-league low.

  • The Nationals averaged 29,005 in 80 home games in the inaugural season of their new ballpark a year ago, but averaged 20,665 in the first seven home games this season. More ominously, on April 17, 12,473 attend the Braves-Nationals game in Washington, D.C., a figure that included season tickets and advance sales. Tim Lemke of Washington Times: "Let's assume that all of the paid attendance came from season-ticket holders alone. That would mean that the Nationals season ticket base is 12,473, or about 6,000 less than last year, a 33% drop."

  • On April 20, 11,408 attend the Royals-Indians game in Cleveland, the smallest crowd in the 16-year history of Progressive Field according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Cleveland, which averaged 27,122 in 80 home games last season, has pulled an average of 22,248 to first four home games.

  • The Toronto Blue Jays (the folks with the roof) averaged 21,923 through their first eight games. Last season, the team averaged 29,626.

  • The Detroit Tigers, coming off an abysmal 2008, averaged 26,849 in first five home games. Last season's average (81 games): 39,538.

  • The Cardinals? Down, 42,353 per game in 2008, to 38,045 per in eight home games.

Big Apple a Chilling Barometer
Once upon a time, teams could build their way out of economic doldrums. The Baltimore Orioles sold out 67 of their 80 home dates in 1992 at the then-new Camden Yards. The Cleveland Indians, bolstered by a brand-new Jacobs Field, sold out 36 games in the strike-shortened season in 1994, and were filled to capacity 455 consecutive games from 1995 to 2001. The Houston Astros drew 3.1 million fans after moving into a new park in 2001, 300,000 more than they ever attracted at the far larger Astrodome. The Pittsburgh Pirates, a perennial second-division team, sold 2.4 million tickets in 2001 when PNC Park opened, 700,000 more than they ever sold at Three Rivers Stadium.

So, the Yankees and Mets, occupying $2.3 billion worth of new ballparks in the Bronx and Queens, have it made, right?

Not yet. Not in 2009, when the nation is trying to figure out if it's in a recession or the second coming of the Great Depression.

High-spending corporate sponsors are either in hiding or insolvent. Fans have rebelliously refused to lap up the most expensive tickets at either the new Yankee Stadium or the Mets' Citi Field.

Each N.Y. team failed to sell about 5,000 tickets -- including some of the priciest seats -- to each of their first few games after last week's openers, not exactly the harbinger of spring they were seeking.

''I'm sure they're thinking, 'It's just April,''' Jon Greenberg, executive editor of the Team Marketing Report, said of the lack of sellouts. ''But it's lost revenue they anticipated getting. This is the worst possible time to debut a stadium."

Now, the average premium ticket is $510 for the Yankees and $150 for the Mets. But Yankees chief operating officer Lonn Trost says 80 percent of the non-premium seats are $100 or less. The Mets, owners of the new, more moderately priced Citi Field, say 50 percent of their seats are priced at less than $50.

Still, the empty seats jump out at you, as does the jump in cost to the fans in the wake of the new structures. The average ticket price at the new Yankee Stadium is $72.97, a major-league high and an average increase of 76.3 percent over last year. (Source: Team Marketing Report, which conducts an annual survey of ticket prices in baseball.)

Even before the unblinking cameras' eyes continued to show the sea of empty blue seats behind first and third base, Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees' general managing partner, famously acknowledged that "small amounts of our tickets might be overpriced.'' Trost: "Most expensive stadium, highest prices and the worst economy in history means I don't sleep at night. Everybody in every walk of life is suffering from the economy, and we're no different." The main concern is not for your average Joe from the Bronx.

Hardest hit in the NYC economy have been Wall Street and banks of the sort that used to provide financial underpinnings for teams like the Yankees, Knicks, Mets, Giants and Jets. Now, though, the new popular sport in America is taxpayers' examining every expenditure of execs who've been bailed out by Uncle Sam.

Corporations, if not bankrupt, are certainly more thrifty, by necessity and under pressure of public opinion/outrage. Thus, luxury suites and sponsorship deals are dropping to the bottom of the expenditure lists. For example, in March, Bank of America ended negotiations with the Yankees on a sponsorship deal that reportedly would have paid the team $20 million a year, according to The Star-Ledger. As the recipients of federal bailout funds, bank officials worried the public would think it "frivolous," the company's director of marketing said at the time.

Such bailouts are among the reasons noted sports economists say neither the Yankees nor the Mets can bank on the kinds of enormous profits they saw in better times. Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who is an expert in sports finance: "I think it's going to be a struggle. Both stadiums are more expensive than any other stadiums ever built in baseball, and the teams are on the hook here. They've taken on a substantial financial burden."

Zimbalist estimates that between operating costs and debt service, the Yankees will lay out $100 million a year. That does not include their payroll, which is in excess of $200 million.

"If You Build It, They Will Come" No Sure Thing Anymore
The unfilled seats in New York are even more glaring compared with how robust sales have been for previous stadium openings. The Baltimore Orioles sold out 67 of their 80 home dates in 1992, when Camden Yards opened. The Cleveland Indians sold out 36 games in the strike-shortened season in 1994, and were filled to capacity 45
5 consecutive games from 1995 to 2001.

After moving to their new park in 2001, the Houston Astros drew 3.1 million fans, 300,000 more than they ever attracted at the far larger Astrodome. The Pittsburgh Pirates, a perennial second-division team, sold 2.4 million tickets in 2001 when PNC Park opened, 700,000 more than they ever sold at Three Rivers Stadium.

Brewers: The Exception to the Rule
The Brewers sold 2 million tickets for 2009 before the season started, the second-fastest climb to the milestone in team history. This continues a boom that saw Milwaukee set a franchise attendance mark of more than 3 million fans in 2008 -- when the 2 millionth ticket didn't sell until April 24 last year.

The Brewers, coming off their second-ever season that included postseason play, drew 212,197 through the first six games at 41,900-seat Miller Park, an average of 35,366, according to bizjournals.com. This blog's own Rob Neyer called sales impressive since Milwaukee is "the smallest [metropolitan market] in the majors."

"Whether they can make it, in the long run, I just don't know. But right now they're probably doing about as well as anyone could hope."

Claire Smith is a news editor at ESPN. She covered baseball for 27 years at the Hartford Courant, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.