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Baseball a Big-Ticket Item Here

Southland is the sport's hottest market, with Dodgers, Angels on pace to draw nearly 7 million.

August 24, 2004|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

The game was almost over, the Angels were getting blown out and the crowd was thinning out. Designated hitter Tim Salmon glanced up at a patch of empty seats, a rare sight at Angel Stadium, and flashed back to the not-so-good old days.

"Holy cow," Salmon said. "That's what it used to be like every day."

No more. In a season in which major league baseball is on pace to set an attendance record, there is no hotter market for a hot sport than Southern California.

The New York Yankees lead the majors in attendance, but the Dodgers rank second and the Angels third. With the possibility of both teams advancing to the playoffs in the same season -- for the first time in the 44 years the teams have shared the Southland -- the Dodgers and Angels will sell nearly 7 million tickets this summer, a figure unprecedented in baseball's two-team markets.

"Winning does great things," said Lon Rosen, the Dodgers' chief marketing officer. "You've got to hand it to the guys on the field."

There could hardly be a more opportune time for the surge in popularity. With the Lakers disintegrating, the NHL season in jeopardy and the NFL still absent from Los Angeles, the Dodgers and Angels could claim the Southland as baseball territory for years to come.

"This gives baseball a long-term opportunity to really strengthen its hold on the market," said David Carter, a Los Angeles sports business consultant.

Commissioner Bud Selig has proclaimed this "a golden era" for baseball, citing increases in attendance, local television ratings and national television ratings as evidence.

"There's no question it's sustainable," Selig said. "I don't think people understand how good this sport is going to be in the 21st century."

The 30 major league teams are on pace to draw 74.1 million fans, up 6.5 million from last season and 1.4 million from the record set in 2000.

The Dodgers are on pace for 3.49 million fans, third-highest in team history and highest for any National League team in six years. The Angels are on pace for 3.39 million, a club record for the second consecutive season and close to their maximum annual capacity of 3.6 million.

The Angels have sold out a record 39 games -- of 60 -- in their 45,000-seat stadium. The Dodgers have sold out 21 games -- the most since 1991 -- in their 56,000-seat stadium.

The Angels' ratings on Fox Sports Net are up 63% from last season, and the Dodgers' ratings are up 23%, Fox spokesman Dennis Johnson said.

"To me, baseball is alive and thriving in Southern California," Angel President Dennis Kuhl said, "from Little League all the way up to the major leagues."

Although the Dodgers have long been one of baseball's best draws, the Angels have not, much to the dismay of major league executives befuddled over how previous owners -- Walt Disney Co. and the Autry family -- failed to capitalize on the huge Southland market.

"We were told over and over again this was a small-market team," Angel closer Troy Percival said. "We finally had somebody come in and say, 'I don't think so.' "

Under new owner Arte Moreno, the Angels sell themselves as a Southern California team, not an Orange County team. Moreno's business plan calls for the Angels to draw 3 million every year. They have considered adding hundreds of seats behind the outfield, but Kuhl said that idea has been shelved for now because of concern over sight lines.

The Angels drew 1.76 million in 1997, about half what they will draw this season. They have sold at least 40,000 tickets for each of their last 29 games and have sold more than 30,000 for every game this season.

"If we did fill the seats back in the day, a lot of them were rooting for the other team. You don't see that around here anymore," Percival said. "And we get more people out here from more areas now. In Riverside, everywhere I go, people say, 'I was at the game last night.' "

Kuhl said he believes the Angels can sustain high attendance, with temperate weather that makes good crowds in April and May possible and Moreno's presentation of nearly every game on television.

"Arte will continue to put a good product on the field," Kuhl said. "More games on TV gives the club more exposure and highlights players people want to come and see."

The Dodgers also upgraded their television schedule this year, in time for an unexpectedly excellent season. The Angels won the World Series in 2002, but the Dodgers have not appeared in a playoff game in eight years and have not won one in 16.

"For a team everybody wrote off in spring training, they're pretty much running away with it," Salmon said last week. "I think they've been a pleasant surprise to Dodger fans."

The Angels never had drawn 3 million before last year, but the Dodgers did it in each of the last eight years. In spring training, new co-owner Jamie McCourt said the Dodgers ought to shoot for 4 million, a milestone achieved only by the Colorado Rockies and Toronto Blue Jays. To reach 4 million, the Dodgers would need to average 49,382, up from the current 43,135.

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