Winning is the best way to boost revenue

After more than a decade, it seems baseball's booming building period is coming to a close. There are plans -- and hopes -- for new ballparks in Minneapolis, Washington and New York (two), but once these are finalized and groundbreaking takes place, the construction will slow considerably.

Since Camden Yards opened in 1991 and changed the landscape -- economically and aesthetically -- 15 other ballparks have opened. All that will remain from the old are a handful of historic relics (Wrigley, Fenway and, relatively speaking, Dodger Stadium) or teams looking furtively at other markets (Marlins, A's).

Perhaps this slowdown is welcome. For one thing, even the new generation of playpens had begun to take on an eerie sameness -- all hunter green seats and exposed brick. For another, it has begun to dawn on organizations that ballparks alone are not a panacea.

For a while, it sure seemed that way. Not long after Camden Yards opened, similarly designed ballparks opened in Cleveland, Detroit and other cities where baseball had been rendered almost obsolete.

The new ballparks, naturally, saw an immediate spike in attendance. Even better, the crush of fans to stagnant downtown areas helped provide some urban renewal and, in turn, sparked more building and other new businesses.

That sent the wrong message, however. Other clubs saw the immediate benefits and decided to take the shortcut provided by publicly funded new stadiums.

But such boosts come with a short shelf life. Once the novelty of a shiny new bauble begins to wear off, the surge at the ticket window ceases.

"I think people forget what a team like the Indians did [with Jacobs Field]," one longtime executive said. "They timed it perfectly so that when they moved into the new park, they were ready to win. They locked up a lot of their core guys and were set to compete."

When the Indians began to experience a drop-off in play as players got older or left for free agency, the string of consecutive sellouts came to an abrupt end. Just three seasons after drawing 3.4 million to the Jake in 2000, the 2003 Tribe saw its gate cut almost exactly in half (1.7 million).

Not every club learned the lesson, though.

As a textbook example, take the Milwaukee Brewers. They drew 1.5 million in the final year (2000) at County Stadium, then nearly doubled that figure (2.8 million) when Miller Park opened the next season.

But just as quickly, the product on the field -- not the facility itself -- became the focal point of fans, and attendance soon dipped. In just the second season of operation, Miller Park had its attendance (1.9 million) fall by almost one-third. It continued to trend downward (1.7 million) in Year 3 before an upswing (2 million) in 2004 when the Brewers -- you guessed it -- showed promise and improvement and remained around .500 until spiraling out of contention in mid-August.

Last season, when the Brewers reached .500 for the first time since 1992, they attracted 2.2 million and will top that figure again this season as they continue to climb toward contention.

Seattle is another case study. Mirroring the Mariners' fall in the standings -- they have missed the playoffs in each of the last four years -- the club no longer regularly tops 3 million in attendance. Last season, in fact, was the third straight year in which attendance decreased from the previous season at Safeco Field.

It's important, too, for teams to reinvest the profits realized from increased fan support. The Pirates drew only 1.8 million last year, but that number is sure to increase this season as the Bucs use the All-Star Game as a ticket-selling tool.

Perhaps then the Pirates can expand their payroll, which this season stands 27th among the 30 major league teams.

"After a while," one baseball man said, "fans don't like the idea that [clubs] are sitting back and just counting the money."

So good luck to the Nationals and Twins and Marlins, wherever they end up. And enjoy the ride while it lasts. The fans might come if you build it, but their support could be short-lived.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.