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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.

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.

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