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Empty seats at Rogers Centre during game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the division leading Baltimore Orioles May 30, 2012. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)
Empty seats at Rogers Centre during game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the division leading Baltimore Orioles May 30, 2012. (The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail)

Jays' attendance woes

Will the new media bring fans back to the old ballpark? Add to ...

Meredith Rogers is everything the Blue Jays ever wanted in a fan. The Toronto public-relations professional makes good money, is a demographically perfect 26 years old and buys tickets to a couple of dozen games a year.

That alone would have made her a management favourite a few years ago. But she’s even more important to them now – her Facebook page features a giant picture of a packed-to-capacity Rogers Centre, her Twitter feed is a steady stream of game-related thoughts when the players are on the field.

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Every time she hits send on a social-media update, she’s selling the Blue Jays to 2,000 of her closest friends. If the Blue Jays are ever going to play to the huge crowds they once enjoyed, they’ll need to start converting her friends into their fans.

With an aging ballpark better known for its utility than its charm, the team is looking to leverage social media to win over a generation of fans who have more entertainment choices than ever before.

“I go with different groups of friends and it’s definitely become a different experience because of social media,” she said. “We can be easily distracted, so even though the main focus is to watch the game and yell at the players it’s definitely a social thing. It doesn’t have to be all about baseball.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Blue Jays. The team plays in one of the largest markets in North America, yet through 15 home games they sit 20th in attendance in a 30-team league at 24,271 a game. The Jays sold an average of 17,227 tickets (clubs report ticket sales rather than turnstile counts) during a three-game sweep of the first-place Baltimore Orioles this week, and expect 100,000 for the three-game weekend series against Boston, including busloads of Red Sox fans.

More fans means more money, and more money (theoretically) translates to more spending on the players needed to win more games and attract more fans.

During the team’s best years, when Toronto’s ballpark was known as the SkyDome and viewed as new and hip, crowds averaging around 50,000 became routine and carried through the club’s 1992 and 1993 World Series seasons. The club even went so far as to cap season-ticket sales at 26,000 to allow casual fans the chance to purchase decent seats.

The Blue Jays won’t divulge season-ticket information these days but it is believed to be around 10,000.

“When the roof is open on a sunny day, with the CN Tower over top, it is a beautiful setting,” said Stephen Brooks, senior vice-president of business operations for the Blue Jays. “We’ve still got a way to go, don’t get me wrong. We’d certainly be the first to admit that.”

If the club is ever going to achieve those numbers again – in a 23-year-old stadium that is becoming better known for its artificial turf, sterile atmosphere and poor sight lines than for its quirky design and rich history as a World Series venue – tapping into the young and the connected will be the difference between empty seats or capacity crowds.

“It used to be people went to watch the games,” said Jimmy Lynn, the managing partner of Virginia-based sports marketing firm JLynn Associates. “Now, everything is all about ego. People want to brag and boast that they are at the game, they post pictures of themselves and send tweets. It’s about self-promotion and self-expression as much as it is about the game, which can be slow.”

Getting these connected fans is a challenge facing teams across the league. In Chicago, the Cubs have aggressively courted fans by offering access to members of the team and having special rates for fans the team feels are influential social-media users.

The Jays have started something they call “Tweeting Tuesdays” where prizes are offered to those using the micro-blogging service from inside the stadium during the game. Players such as Brett Lawrie are encouraged to use Twitter as well, sending out messages to more than 100,000 (often casual) fans each.

The results are paying off, at least in terms of Twitter volume – SportsBusiness Journal did a league-wide survey that showed the number of Jays-related tweets has jumped 46 per cent since Opening Day (although another survey by Mashable noted that Jays fans were the worst in the league when it comes to sharing photos on Instagram).

The outreach seems to be spilling over on television as well. Sportsnet data show its game-day audiences in the 18-to-34 demographic increased by 42 per cent over last year. The number of women in that age range watching has doubled from two years ago.

“You have these players interacting with fans and that is totally new,” Rogers said. “It has a big effect on bringing people out to the park – fans who weren’t interested before see the new players and notice how funny and gorgeous they are and start to develop an interest.”

Social media may be the most urgent focal points for the team’s executives – they have hired a “tweeting consultant” for the first time in their history – the team has another advantage that clubs in American cities can only dream of in a condo boom that has driven thousands of well-paid, young professionals to the stadium’s doorstep.

Statistics Canada data shows there are about 15,000 people living within easy walking distance of the Rogers Centre, and the demographics skew largely toward the young, single and wealthy. But they have more choices than ever when considering a night out, something real estate sales representative Brian Persaud knows about.

“Did you know you can just go and watch the game from the hotel in the Rogers Centre?” asked Persaud, who considers himself a baseball fan but only makes it to a few games each season. “The beer is cheaper and you don’t need a ticket.”

Persaud lives within steps of the stadium, and sells condos to investors and home-hunters who want to be in the downtown core. The Blue Jays have never come up as a reason for moving next to the stadium, he says, though he’s noticed more buzz around the team than in the past as he walks through his neighbourhood.

Brooks knows there is still plenty of work to do to recapture the attendance numbers of the past. That won’t include lowering ticket prices or the price of beer, such as ownership did in Houston this season at Astros games. But there is a wider variety of food and beverages now being offered that caters to a more hipster taste, including sushi and craft beer. Brooks said there has been talk of establishing a signature food that would help fans identify more with Rogers Centre and the baseball team.

“In Philadelphia you’ve got the cheese steak and Montreal is known for its smoked meat,” he said. “For Toronto, we’ve talked about peameal bacon sandwiches. It’s something we’re still working on.”

Culinary experimentation aside, the club is focusing on improvements to the stadium’s infrastructure to try to regenerate the fan base, having spent an estimated $4-million this year to spruce up the building – the lights shine brighter, the number of televisions along the concourse have doubled to 300.

Of course, the focus is ultimately on the baseball. But with fans coming to the stadium with smartphones and tablets, it’s easier to serve them up the data and minutia that helps turn a casual fan into a fantasy-baseball-obsessed megafan – exactly the type of person who can ignore their surroundings and get lost in the game.

“I can check on favourite plays pitch-by-pitch,” Rogers said. “And while I would like to think I’m a giant nerd, the Internet has taught me that people know way more about stats than I ever could. But, I would say having that sort of access to information is helpful for connecting marginal fans to the game.”

Fan Friendly: What the Jays are doing to enhance enjoyment of a game

WATCH IT LIVE – ON TV

One-hundred and fifty new 42-inch flat-screen video monitors were installed in the first- and second-tier Rogers Centre concourses, which brings the number of stadium monitors to around 300. Stephen Brooks, senior vice-president of business operations for the Blue Jays, was loathe to admit it, but none of the new monitors were installed on the 500 level, the nosebleed seats in the upper echelons of the stadium. It could be argued that’s where TV monitors are needed most – or at least a pair of binoculars. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” Brooks said. “And you start where most of your traffic is and kind of work your way up.” The picture is now high definition thanks to a multimillion-dollar renovation to the stadium’s main control room. When the building’s 33-by-110-foot video scoreboard over centre field is finally replaced it will feature an HD picture.

GET THAT BASEBALL VALIDATED

The Blue Jays have a new program, primarily directed toward children, in which a baseball hit into the stands can be taken to guest services and a certificate will be issued as proof that it was, indeed, an authentic MLB projectile.

HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A LIGHT BULB?

The lighting at Rogers Centre had fallen below major-league standards. Although fans might not realize it, the entire lighting system was upgraded in a two-month conversion process with all 840 of the 2,000-watt bowl lights replaced. They are on six banks encircling the field near the roof. It wasn’t simply a matter of changing one light for another. According to Kelly Keyes, the vice-president of building services, each light was individually tailored, using computers, to cast its beam to a specific spot on the field. The pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box are always the brightest areas on a baseball field.

TAKE AWAY A PIECE OF A.J. BURNETT HISTORY

Another new addition this year is the Memorabilia Clubhouse, home for game-worn jerseys, baseballs, bats and other baseball artifacts. On April 15, Jackie Robinson Day was celebrated throughout baseball and the bases from Toronto’s game that day were collected and put on display there. One collector has already purchased second base, paying $250. You can also get the locker nameplate belonging to A.J. Burnett, the former Toronto pitcher, for $150. A nameplate that once adorned the locker of John Farrell can be had for anywhere between $100 to $150, while one containing the name of former manager Cito Gaston could run you as much as $300.

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