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(J. Meric/2010 Getty Images)
(J. Meric/2010 Getty Images)

Economy hurting Major League Baseball Add to ...

If the adage in sports that "winning cures all" is true, then teams fighting for a spot in the postseason, like the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds, ought to be selling more tickets.

With first place on the line, the Tampa Bay Rays averaged 28,400 fans, or 79 per cent of capacity, for their three home games against the New York Yankees two weeks ago and filled just a third of their seats Monday night, prompting several of the team's star players to lash out at the lack of fan support.

Nearing their first division title in 15 years, the Reds drew 12,000 fans to a recent night game, their smallest crowd of the year. The Braves have had trouble filling even half their seats this month despite battling for a playoff spot.

The sight of so many empty seats at stadiums where teams are vying for a chance to play in the postseason is a glaring reminder that baseball is still not back to its pre-recession heights and that professional sports leagues more broadly continue to suffer from the after-effects of the economic downturn after years of record growth.

Attendance across Major League Baseball is down about a third of 1 per cent this year after falling in 2008 and 2009. Declines have been most noticeable in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the Mets, the Cubs and the Dodgers have had disappointing seasons, but also in Baltimore, Cleveland and Toronto, where attendance has slipped for several years.

With the exception of the Rays, every team in the hunt for a playoff spot this year has had its attendance rise this season. The Reds set a club record for tickets sold in August, and ticket sales for the Colorado Rockies and the Texas Rangers jumped more than 10 per cent this year.

But attendance has fallen conspicuously this month in cities that have not seen a pennant in years. Part of the problem is that children are back in school and less likely to attend weeknight games. The quality of the opponent and the chillier weather can dampen enthusiasm as well.

But baseball officials and analysts say that many fans are still pinching pennies, even if economists have declared the recession officially over. With more games broadcast in high definition and the price of flat-panel televisions declining, more fans are content to watch their teams at home and perhaps save money for playoff tickets.

"It's still a hangover from previous years when everyone was worried about the economy," said Jon Greenberg, executive editor of the Team Marketing Report, which publishes the Fan Cost Index. "People realize they can do without as many games."

Baseball is not the only sport trying to regain its footing. The NBA and the NHL had attendance slip last season during the depths of the recession. In the NFL this year, the Jets and the Giants failed to sell out their season openers in their new $1.6 billion stadium. A growing number of games have been blacked out on television the past two years because teams in Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa and elsewhere have failed to sell out their home games, a rarity a few years ago.

Those teams have performed poorly on the field, and it has not helped that 17 NFL teams raised tickets prices this season.

Most baseball teams in the hunt for a playoff spot, though, usually have an easier time attracting fans.

Attendance, of course, is just one indicator of fans' support. Merchandise sales, television ratings, traffic on team websites and spending on concessions at the ballpark are also important measuring sticks. Indeed, every team chasing a playoff spot this year has had sales of its merchandise grow and, with the exception of the Yankees, has seen its television ratings rise, too.

The Minnesota Twins, who are playing in a new ballpark and have clinched their division, have had merchandise sales jump 136 per cent this year. Sales have risen more than 30 per cent for the San Francisco Giants, the Rays, the Rangers, the Reds and the Yankees.

For most teams, sales are highest in the summer, particularly in places like Atlanta, before children return to school in the second week of August. The Braves also draw many fans who make trips from surrounding states. Once summer vacation season ends, attendance at Turner Field declines.

"That's been traditional, something that's part of the Atlanta market," said Derek Schiller, the Braves' executive vice president for sales and marketing. "We have a bell curve, lower at the front and back ends, and much higher during the summer months."

Mr. Schiller said that ticket sales had risen about 5 per cent this season because of the team's excellent record at home, the impending retirement of manager Bobby Cox and the introduction of new players like Jason Heyward. Spending on concessions at the park has also increased.

During their run of 14 consecutive playoff appearances that ended in 2005, the Braves were notorious for not selling out some postseason games. The novelty of making the playoffs had apparently worn off.

So far this year postseason ticket sales have risen 40 per cent compared with the same point in 2005. Still, "for teams like us that don't have 50,000 season-ticket holders, it's tough" to sell out home games in the first round of the playoffs, Mr. Schiller said.

In Tampa Bay, the Rays' attendance at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg has declined 0.3 per cent this year even though the team has one of the best records in baseball. After Monday night's loss to the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay pitcher David Price wrote on Twitter, "Had a chance to clinch a post season spot tonight with about 10,000 people in the stands ... embarrassing." Evan Longoria, the team's third baseman, told The St. Petersburg Times that the crowd of 12,446 was "disheartening."

The Rays drew 17,891, just under half of capacity, Tuesday night.

Team officials have talked about the need for a new stadium to attract fans. The trouble may not only be the stadium, but that the Rays are a relatively new team (they began play in 1998) in a city hit hard by the recession that has many alternatives to attending a game.

"We might be a lot better baseball market than people realize, but we don't have the history," said Philip Porter, an economics professor at the University of South Florida, who said that the Rays were seventh in attendance when adjusting for the region's population. "There are so many things to do in Florida. We get outside, go to the beach, so we're not as easily seduced by baseball as somewhere else."

The Reds are perplexing because of their rich history and because their fans come from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and beyond. Michael Anderson, a team spokesman, said the Reds did not draw well in 1990 and 1995, when they made the playoffs. Now that children are back in school, the Reds must compete with Friday night high school football games.

"Unfortunately, it's not too surprising for us," Mr. Anderson said, adding that the team has sold $5 (U.S.) tickets and $1 hot dogs, peanuts and sodas to attract price-conscious fans.

 

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