It's no joke. The Dodgers really are playing to a half-empty stadium, according to testimony Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
On a day when the Dodgers won a round in court and the children of Frank Sinatra led a group of season-ticket holders asking for a say in the bankruptcy proceedings, the most startling news was the disclosure of how attendance has fallen.
The Dodgers' turnstile count this season is projected to be 2.2 million to 2.3 million, testified Milton Arenson, president of FMI, the company that handles merchandise sales for the team.
If every one of Dodger Stadium's 56,000 seats were filled for every game, the attendance for the season would be 4.536 million. If the Dodgers attract 2.25 million people, they would play to 49.6% of capacity.
"The only thing I can describe it as is a sad turn of events," said Fred Claire, the former general manager who served the Dodgers in various roles from 1969 to 1998.
"It's striking. It has to be of great concern to everybody involved. It's certainly in stark contrast to what the Dodgers have known and what Dodgers fans have known."
The Dodger Stadium turnstile count was 3.6 million in 1982, so a 2.25-million count this season would represent a drop of 37.5%.
The no-show rate -- the percentage of tickets bought but not used -- would be 25% based on current attendance.
The Dodgers' no-show rate was 17% two years ago, according to records filed in the divorce case of owner Frank McCourt and his ex-wife, Jamie, and 21% last year, based on Arenson's testimony that the Dodgers' 2010 turnstile count was 2.8 million.
All the unsold tickets -- and all the hot dogs, beers and T-shirts that go unsold when people do not use their tickets -- could create a "ripple effect," said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.
With less money coming in this year, the Dodgers could have less money to spend next year, Carter said, making the team a harder sell to fans, advertisers and sponsors.
"You lose free agents. You lose some of your own players. You don't sign anybody important," Carter said. "All of that contributes to a very detrimental business cycle."
Under Major League Baseball rules, teams need only announce the number of tickets sold, not the number of tickets used -- that is, the turnstile count.
The Dodgers are on pace to sell fewer than 3 million tickets for the first time since 1992, when they lost 99 games. And the Dodgers have offered steep discounts for much of this season, including $4 tickets for July 4 and $5 tickets for bobblehead nights.
They sold 3.86 million tickets in 2007, the record under McCourt ownership. They sold 3.76 million in 2009, when they advanced to the National League Championship Series for a second consecutive season, and sold 3.56 million last year.
Arenson called the Dodgers' recent attendance "horrific." The company acquired the Dodgers' merchandising rights before the 2010 season, and FMI attorney Arthur Rosenberg said the first two years of the contract have been "disastrous" for the company.
The company did not want to take the risk of placing 2012 merchandise orders without a commitment the Dodgers would continue to use FMI. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross rejected the request, saying the Dodgers had not breached their contract with FMI and the company could sue for any actual damages at a later date.
Also, the three Sinatra children led a group of season-ticket holders asking for recognition as a party in the bankruptcy case and asking that the Dodgers pay their legal bills, just as the Dodgers must pay the bills for the official creditors' committee. Robbin Itkin, the attorney for the group, said she does not know when recognition will be granted or denied.
In a statement, Dodgers spokesman Robert Siegfried said the team plans to honor its contracts with ticket holders.
"Because the ticket holders' interests will not be affected by the Chapter 11 [bankruptcy] cases," Siegfried said in the statement, "there is no reason for the appointment of a ticket holders committee."
In its court filing, the group of ticket holders did not ask for anything specific from the Dodgers.
"We want to have a voice in what happens," said Itkin, the attorney for the group. "Everything that happens affects ticket prices, and that is a lot of what funds the operations."