Though attendance appears to be lagging, Mariners executives braced for poorer attendance and are hopeful things will improve.
By virtually any measurement, the Mariners’ attendance trends are as gloomy as the April weather.
But it’s not like all the empty seats and record-setting low crowds at Safeco Field last week sneaked up on the organization. They had braced themselves for just that after sluggish season-ticket sales and a poor start to the 2011 season.
“We expected crowds like that, from our internal projections,” team president Chuck Armstrong said Friday. “Losing 101 games like we have (in two of the past three years), we expected lower attendance and are projecting lower attendance.”
The Mariners aren’t revealing the figures, but it is believed they have sold fewer than 10,000 season tickets for the first time at Safeco Field. They sold nearly 24,000 season tickets in 2002.
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Armstrong also wouldn’t disclose what total attendance number the Mariners are budgeting for in 2011, but he acknowledged that it’s less than 2 million. That would mark the first time they have failed to hit that mark in a full season since Safeco opened in July 1999. Last year, they barely sneaked over 2 million with 2,085,630.
The Mariners soared to remarkable heights of popularity in the golden early years of Safeco, when the combination of a sparkling new venue and an exciting, successful team led to four straight years over 3 million from 2000 to 2003.
They peaked with a major-league-leading 3,540,482 fans in 2002 — a year after they set an American League record with 116 victories. But those days of filling Safeco night after night are a distant memory.
Flash forward to last week, when the total attendance for a three-game series with the Blue Jays — 40,963 — was lower than the daily average for 81 dates in 2002 (43,710) and 2001 (43,308). They had three of the five smallest crowds in Safeco history in that Toronto series, including an all-time low of 12,407 Wednesday.
On the homestand, the Mariners were down 43,835 from the first six games of 2010, and their average of 23,021 (boosted by a home-opening sellout) ranks 22nd in the majors. They’re barely ahead of small-revenue teams Pittsburgh, Florida, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Cleveland — not the sort of company they want to keep.
The Mariners don’t like it, of course, and they’re hoping for better days ahead in the not-so-distant future. But they understand they’re paying the price for finishing last in the American League West in five of the past seven seasons, topped (or bottomed) by two of the most depressing years in franchise history in 2008 and 2010.
In that context, Bob Aylward, the Mariners’ executive vice president of business operations, believes their attendance numbers actually reflect impressive fan loyalty.
“Since we’ve moved into Safeco, the expectations have really risen to that very, very high bar,” he said. “It goes back to how good our fans in this market have been to us and continue to be. In other cities, if you lost 101 last year and two years ago, you wouldn’t have seen over 2 million. You’d have been seeing 1.3 million.
“That’s some perspective I hope people recognize. That being said, we know we have to continue to execute all the fundamentals we can in customer service. But in the long run, we have to put W’s and championships on the wall. We get it. We know that.”
While the attendance plummets, the Mariners’ television numbers are holding steady compared to last year — though they, too, have fallen precipitously since the early 2000s.
The first 13 games on ROOT Sports this season (through Thursday) averaged a 4.9 rating, according to network spokeswoman Jill Wiggins. That’s a 25 percent increase over last year’s season average of 3.9 on the network, then called FSN.
Through 13 games last year, the Mariners had a 5.9 rating. That’s higher than this year, but Wiggins pointed out that eight of those games last year were in the prime-time window, compared to six so far this season.
The opening-day rating on ROOT this year edged last season’s opening day, 7.9 to 7.8, though last year’s home opener rated 5.8, compared to 5.2 this year.
All these numbers pale in comparison to the whopping 14.9 rating the M’s averaged in 2001.
To get out of this morass, the Mariners are banking on an improved performance from the team, allowing fans to rally around young players like Michael Pineda, Justin Smoak and eventually Dustin Ackley, along with veterans like Felix Hernandez and Ichiro.
“The fans will follow the growth of these young players,” Aylward said. “Obviously, we’d like to see more people in the stands, and we think there will be more people in the stands as each week and month go by. Especially if the season goes as we hope, with young players getting here and establishing themselves, and people getting to know them and like them.
“It’s hard to preach patience, internally and externally. But we have to be patient. It’s coming.”
The immediate reality they’re dealing with, however, is another losing record, another team struggling to score runs, and personalities that, by and large, haven’t endeared themselves to the fans.
“I’m disappointed in the win-loss record, because I thought we had a good, clean spring training,” Armstrong said. “We played well in spring training, but I’m pleased with the job Eric (manager Eric Wedge) and his staff are doing, and Jack (general manager Jack Zduriencik) is working hard. … We expect this team to get better as the season rolls along.”
Attendance figures in April and May can be misleading because of cold weather and the fact kids aren’t yet out of school. Through Thursday, attendance for 20 of 30 major-league teams was down compared to last year, though the total attendance drop of 209,769 (1,153 fans per game) wasn’t alarming.
Some individual markets are troubled, however. The Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, in addition to the Mariners, had the smallest crowds in the history of their ballparks. The New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks all were struggling to fill seats.
Still, commissioner Bud Selig said in late March that MLB was hoping to draw a record 80 million fans this season, based on encouraging ticket sales. MLB drew 73.1 million last year, down 5.1 million from 2007 but still a respectable performance in light of the lagging economy.
The Mariners, meanwhile, have no choice but to endure the early attendance struggles and hope for brighter times.
“These are not shocking numbers to us, based on the kind of hole we’ve dug for ourselves,”Aylward said. “But we’re going to get out of it, and soon.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|Quiet at home in 2011|
|The Mariners weren’t the only team to have the smallest crowd in their stadium’s history this season. Five other teams have, as well.|
|Team||Attendance||Date||Years in stadium|
|Atlanta Braves||13,865||Tuesday vs. Marlins||15th season at Turner Field|
|Minnesota Twins||36,286||Wednesday vs. Royals||Second season at Target Field|
|Cleveland Indians||8,726||April 3 vs. White Sox||18th season at Progressive Field|
|New York Yankees||40,267||April 5 vs. Twins||Third season at new Yankee Stadium|
|St. Louis Cardinals||32,007||Pirates on April 4||Sixth season at new Busch Stadium|