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Behind in Count

Baseball attendance is down significantly for the second consecutive season, with weather and economy blamed

June 27, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

The Angels are expecting three sellout crowds for this weekend's series against the Dodgers, after the Dodgers sold out two of three games against the Angels last weekend.

Pacific Bell Park will be packed for this weekend's San Francisco-Oakland series after the Giants and A's drew a three-game franchise record 155,375 fans in Oakland last weekend.

New York's Yankee Stadium will be jammed for this weekend's Met-Yankee series, and Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field will attract huge crowds for the Cub-White Sox series.

But a short-term spike in attendance spurred by several attractive interleague matchups belies a disturbing trend in stadiums across America: Baseball is scuffling at the gate like the Dodgers at the plate.

Average attendance is down about 5% this season after a 6% decrease in 2002. In 1994, baseball's average attendance was 31,612; before Thursday's games, the 2003 average was 26,520.

While teams in Southern California, Chicago, New York and the Bay Area played to full houses last weekend, Tampa Bay and Florida drew 38,303 -- total -- for three games in Pro Player Stadium. Average attendance figures for the Devil Rays (12,252), Marlins (13,020) and Montreal Expos (12,239) are staggering.

An even more sobering development: Turnstiles in many of baseball's shiniest new parks are no longer spinning like wheels of fortune.

The Baltimore Orioles sold out 67 consecutive games after moving into Camden Yards in 1992 and led baseball in attendance from 1995 to '99, peaking at 3.7 million in 1997. Attendance has dropped in each of the last five years, hitting 2.7 million in 2002, and the Orioles are on pace for 2.2 million this season, averaging 27,398.

The Colorado Rockies sold out 203 consecutive games after moving into Coors Field in 1995, and the Cleveland Indians sold out 455 consecutive games after moving into Jacobs Field in 1994.

But the Rockies, with a 27,926 average, are on pace for 2.2 million, and the Indians, with a 19,958 average, are on pace for 1.6 million, after surpassing 3 million for six years from 1996 to 2001.

The Milwaukee Brewers drew 2.8 million in 2001, the year Miller Park opened, but fell to 1.9 million in 2002 and are on pace for 1.5 million this year. The Detroit Tigers, after drawing 2.5 million to new Comerica Park in 2000, fell to 1.5 million in 2002 and are on pace for 1.4 million this year.

Season-ticket sales in Pittsburgh jumped from 9,000 in 2000 to 17,000 in 2001, the year PNC Park opened, but they're back to 9,000 this season. Four teams -- Cleveland, Houston, Baltimore and Colorado -- already have had their smallest crowds ever this season in stadiums that were attendance magnets.

"New stadiums are no longer the panacea they once were," said Mike Veeck, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Tigers and son of the late legendary White Sox owner Bill Veeck. "But I think that's good in a way; it's a great wake-up call.

"Ballparks are about feeling and passion, not about bricks and mortar. And the idea that this game is going to be passed down through anything other than blood and veins is ludicrous. So, a lot of the things we thought over the last 10-15 years have proven not to be true, and that forces us to change our approach."

Baseball officials are alarmed but not panicked about the downward trend. They point to a sluggish economy, horrible weather in the East and Midwest and lingering effects from last season's labor dispute as contributing factors, acknowledging they didn't expect to set attendance records year after year.

Commissioner Bud Selig called this spring's weather "the worst I can remember in all the years I've been in baseball," and the statistics back him up. It rained in New York on 28 of 51 days from May to late June, and Baltimore had rain or the threat of rain for 31 of 34 home dates through June 15. During one three-game stretch this month, the Orioles had six hours of rain delays, killing walk-up ticket sales.

"We're in mid-June now and [the bad weather] hasn't stopped," Selig said in a recent interview. "We're losing sold-out games, and at this point of the season we're losing games that become more difficult to make up. I hate to put it in these terms, but we're really getting killed."

Attendance dropped considerably after a strike wiped out the 1994 World Series, falling from a 31,612 average in 1994 to 25,260 in 1995, but baseball surged past 30,000 a game in 2000 and 2001. The last two seasons, that trend has reversed.

"We're concerned because we draw a significant portion of revenues from attendance, but we're definitely not overly concerned," MLB spokesman Rich Levin said. "Given the weather and the economy, we think attendance is pretty good."

The Brewers had their worst season in franchise history in 2002, going 56-106, and their season-ticket base, not surprisingly, dropped from 11,000 to 8,000.

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