Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Shaun Marcum pitches against the Kansas City Royals before a sea of empty seats at Rogers Centre in Toronto. (NATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press)
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Shaun Marcum pitches against the Kansas City Royals before a sea of empty seats at Rogers Centre in Toronto. (NATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press)

Jeff Blair

Where did all the fans go? Add to ...

Paul Beeston jumped out of the chair to retrieve a wire-bound pad of legal paper.



"Know how I work re-alignment?" Beeston asked during an interview at his Rogers Centre office. "I start with the Blue Jays and New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox together. I've got one here: Boston, both New York teams, Philadelphia and us. Put all the big boys together and let them spend money. I have another one here with relegation. Like soccer."

More Related to this Story



It is true that there are grand schemes on the table of commissioner Bud Selig's office that might boost postseason hopes for a team that's finished above third place in the American League East just once since the 1993 championship season. Baseball's divisions could be realigned or, more likely, playoffs could be expanded to include more teams. And since Beeston is part of a committee looking into it, the Blue Jays ought to get a sympathetic hearing.



For now though, it's difficult to envision any "blue-sky scenario" when all Jays fans see are rows of empty blue seats. So tonight, when the Blue Jays begin a three-game series against AL East-rival Boston Red Sox, attention will return to Toronto's attendance story.



After their first 10 home games, the Blue Jays had attracted the second-smallest average attendance in the Majors.



"Rogers [Media]saw this coming," Beeston, the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer said, referring to the clubs owner. "They realize what's happening and accept it. Our thinking is this: We rather under promise and over deliver than over promise and under-deliver."



Say this: No one can accuse the Blue Jays of overpromising. They traded perennial Cy Young candidate Roy Halladay for a package of prospects. Their biggest off-season free-agent signing? A Cuban shortstop who may never make it to the majors. Not very sexy - especially with a lame-duck manager, Cito Gaston.



An aging, grouchy fan base had been somewhat mollified by bells and whistles offered by previous president Paul Godfrey. Compounding their discontent, Beeston has eliminated discount programs such as $2 Tuesdays, and season-ticket holder perks ranging from spring training trips to fancy ticket cases.



It's tough love and fans, once again, are being asked to take things on faith.



"Rogers is prepared to give us payrolls of $130-million to $140-million, which we'll need to contend," Beeston said. "But we need to generate the revenue to sustain that payroll. We're trying to put some integrity back into our ticket pricing."



Official attendance increased under Godfrey's watch, from 1.83 million in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2008. But there was a catch. A former Blue Jays employee said the team actually generated more revenue from ticket sales last season - Beeston's first back in charge - from 1,876,129 fans than it did from ticket sales in 2008.



"Rogers still didn't make money [last season]" the source says, "but they lost significantly less money."



A small season-ticket base (rumoured to be less than 6,000) and a sense they have lost their footprint has in some circles raised the spectre of another Montreal Expos-style move. But there are huge differences. The Blue Jays are not a limited partnership and aren't vulnerable to a "Trojan Horse" style takeover, as used by Jeffrey Loria to buy out his partners and move the team to Florida. And while the Expos were cash-strapped, one Rogers executive referred to the Blue Jays' impact on the company bottom line as "a rounding loss."



Rogers owns the stadium and the Jays represent prime-time product for the company-owned television channel, Rogers SportsNet. Another factor: Commissioner Bud Selig viewed relocation of a franchise to Washington, D.C. - where the Expos relocated, rebranded as the Washington Nationals - as integral to his legacy. There's no such motive to move the Jays.



Still, the Blue Jays have adopted what appears to be a benign marketing strategy. Chris Hyatt, a sports marketing and business professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., agrees with Beeston aversion to discounting, but he worries about the relative lack of giveaways - such as bobbleheads.



"Once you've discounted prices, it's hard to bring them back up to full price," Hyatt said. "Promotions and giveaways are value-added - and you need to do that to get fans to sit through nine innings to watch a mediocre product in a substandard stadium. If you pooh-pooh marketing, you have no choice but to put a winning team on the field."



According to industry figures cited by the team's vice-president of marketing and merchandising Anthony Partipilo, the Blue Jays' average ticket price is $23.84, compared to $52.56 for the Chicago Cubs, $51.83 for the Yankees and $29.66 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Blue Jays have more seats in low-priced areas of a large stadium, which drives the average ticket price lower, but the message is clear: If ownership is to approve a big-market payroll, fans should be prepared to pay big-market prices.



"It's like running a department store that gives you a 30- to 40-per-cent discount and then gives you a ticket to scratch off another 10 per cent at the cash register," Partipilo, a former senior manager at Radio Shack's Canadian parent, said. "That's a good way to kill your profit margin.



"It doesn't make sense to give out a $20 bobblehead to get somebody to buy a $2 ticket," Partipilo added. "Giving people a free ticket doesn't get us where we need to be."



Beeston argues the Blue Jays can't market themselves to specific ethnic or income groups until they're better on the field. And he is confident that building from within is "time-tested.



"I mean, it would be great to have an Asian player to market to the Asian community," Beeston said. "I believe we will have that some day. But we don't now. You can have the greatest marketing plan in the world, but you still need the product.



"There's no short-cut. If somebody thinks they have a better way? Please. Be my guest."



Just don't expect a discount on the way in, that's all.

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Sports

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular