- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Empty seats. The defining image of April was those empty seats in a ballpark near you.
Or was it?
Here at World Rumblings Headquarters, we've just finished a study on those empty seats. We totaled up this April's attendance numbers. Then we compared them to last April's attendance numbers. We bet you'll be shocked by what we found.
Guess how much lower the average crowd at a major league baseball game was this April than it was last April. Go ahead. Just guess.
Before we go on, we should tell you that we're not including the two New York teams in this question because their new parks aren't the same size as their old parks. OK, got that? Great. Now take a guess. How much lower?
Five percent? Ten percent? Fifteen percent?
Uh, how about 287?
No, not 287 percent, obviously.
Would you believe 287 people?
We kid you not. The average crowd at a baseball game this April was just 287 customers smaller than the average game last April -- even with one fewer weekend to draw from.
And until Wednesday, when the schedule included six day games and six games in which the temperature never got higher than the 50s, the difference was only 30 people per game. Right, 30. That's it. Believe it or not.
Now this isn't turnstile count, of course. It isn't a count of the actual number of people in the park. This is total number of tickets sold per game. But it's the same attendance formula that baseball has used for years. And the decline still comes to just 287 people per game. Here's how we computed that:
Through Wednesday, if we include New York, the average paid attendance this April was 2.9 percent lower than the average paid attendance last April -- a difference that still works out to only 866 paying customers per game (28,917 versus 29,783 last year).
But remember, if you figure it that way, you're not comparing apples to apples, because the two New York teams are now playing in new, smaller ballparks. So the only fair way to look at these numbers is to factor those NYC figures out and study the attendance in all other markets. Well, we did that, and guess what happened? That alleged attendance drop disappeared -- or just about, anyway. The average non-NYC crowd last April: 28,514. This April: 28,227.
That's an astonishing development in these painful economic times. It's an especially astonishing development when you consider that just a few months ago, the commissioner of baseball was warning teams about massive attendance drops.
So when we ran our numbers past Bud Selig this week, he was one upbeat commish.
"Quite frankly," Selig told Rumblings, "it's too early to draw any definitive conclusions. But we have to be encouraged -- in fact, very encouraged -- by what we've seen over the first 3½ weeks."
These shocking attendance numbers signify two things, Selig said. One is that teams have been "very sensitive to the [economic] environment" and have dangled enough creative ticket and concession bargains to keep their ticket sales from cliff-diving. And the other, he said, is that this is just one more sign that "this sport has never been more popular."
While there's clearly some truth to those assessments, we thought we needed some outside corroboration. So we also reported our findings to David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute.
But Carter was careful to say it's still too early to take these April attendance numbers and project where attendance might be heading. He also encouraged us to analyze attendance market-by-market. So we did that, too. Here's what we learned:
If you break down each team's numbers, you'll find that 12 teams are actually up in attendance over last April.
Another seven are essentially even, meaning they're within a few hundred tickets per game of last April's average.
So that leaves only 11 teams that are down significantly in average attendance -- but two of them are the Mets and Yankees, and only if you look at their raw numbers. If you measure them by adjusting for stadium capacity, you find that both are selling virtually the same percentage of their seats this year as they were last April. So they don't really belong on this list.
In other words, only nine of the 30 clubs are reporting significantly worse attendance this April than last April. And that, said an official of one AL club, is "amazing."
"But you know what might be more telling," he said, "is August, not April. When we get to August, will there be five teams that are really hurting just because they stink? When it's clear they can't win, will people jump off those teams quicker?"
It's a question worth asking. It's also one of many questions about attendance and the economy that can't be answered until the days peel off the calendar.
In the meantime, two clubs in particular look like they're in danger of major attendance dips -- the Nationals and Tigers. Both are down about 9,000 fans a game compared with last April.
But in the Nationals' case, last April was the first month in the life of their new ballpark. And seeing how they've gone 64-117 since last Opening Day, this isn't just a commentary on the economy.
The Tigers are another team with a zillion attendance plot lines. And the economic mess all around them is clearly the No. 1 plot line, as they struggle to survive in a state with a 12.6 percent unemployment rate.
But attendance figures are also relative. And in this team's case, this was still their third-best April attendance in the 10-year life of Comerica Park. We're also comparing this season to a year in which the Tigers drew more fans (over 3.2 million last year) than in any season in the history of the franchise -- and then finished in last place.
So the Detroit Free Press reports that season-ticket sales have dropped from a record 27,000 per game to about 15,000 this year. Which figures. But the Tigers have been as innovative as any club out there in trying to hang onto those fans as best they can.
They've offered former full-season-ticket holders the chance to partner with buyers just like them in half-season plans. They've offered flexible payment schedules. They've offered 41-, 27-, 15- and even six-game plans. They're doing what many businesses need to do in these rough times -- reinventing themselves as best they can.
"This is still a very passionate baseball town," said Ron Colangelo, the Tigers' vice president of communications. "People are still finding ways [to attend] -- and we're doing everything we can to work with them and help them find those ways."
So while this has the makings of a tough year, a year that will produce much lower revenues than last season, it would be an exaggeration to call the Tigers a team in trouble. They're just a team dealing with reality.
And that's also a good description of where this sport is. It's coping with reality -- and surviving surprisingly well -- so far.
But there's also a segment of the baseball population that isn't quite as joyous as the commissioner over these attendance figures. That, not surprisingly, would be agents -- men who watched their free-agent clients take a beating last winter because of all the dire economic predictions about where this sport was heading. And now they can't help but wonder, more than ever, whether that beating was ever justified.
"The national pastime has survived recessions, depressions, scandals and wars," one unhappy agent told Rumblings. "In many ways and for many reasons, the game is indeed recession-proof. The commissioner knew, or should have known, that the MLB Network, MLB.com, the national TV package and season-ticket sales, etc., guaranteed that the revenues in the industry in 2009 would at least be comparable to the $6.6 billion in revenues generated in 2008. He overdramatized the potential financial losses so as to limit and to artificially control spending on free agency."
But Selig, naturally, pleads innocent. He says a month of stable early-season attendance does not mean this sport won't feel the wrath of the economy before this season is out.
"I'm nowhere near ready to predict that," he said.
He also says that when he warned clubs of potentially massive attendance hits, he wasn't urging them to stop spending or cut salaries. He was merely issuing prudent words of caution -- "and very serious caution."
"What I said to the clubs," Selig said, "was simply, 'Look, this is the worst economic environment we've ever lived through, so just act accordingly.' And I think the clubs said to themselves, 'That's true. So if we hold on, it will be a miracle. And if it's worse, we don't know how much worse.'"
Well, we still don't know how much worse, because we don't know where this highway is leading. All we know is where we've been. And if these raw April attendance numbers mean anything, the Great Attendance Crash of 2009 just might turn out to be the biggest myth since the Loch Ness Monster.
Ready to rumble
THE PRICE WASN'T RIGHT DEPT. -- One last attendance item: Selig bristled at whispers that he somehow pressured the Yankees into slashing the prices of their highest-priced seats this week.
"Not true," he said. "Absolutely not true. I stayed out of this. I've certainly been concerned. But one thing I've always felt, having run a team myself for 30 years, is that these clubs know their local markets best. I always said I didn't want Bowie Kuhn telling me what to do with the Brewers. And the same goes now for the New York teams."
ROYALTY: It's no secret the Royals need to add offense if they're going to become a true force in the AL Central. But there would appear to be almost no chance they'll be adding any significant bats before the trading deadline.
Clubs that have spoken to the Royals say they're not even interested in talking about their best, or most advanced, prospects -- from first-round luminaries like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, to arms like Daniel Cortes, Danny Gutierrez and Danny Duffy. And if that's the case, said one NL executive, "if they want a bat, I don't know what they'd use to get it."
HAPPY HOLLIDAYS?: After a spring in which he had two extra-base hits and zero home runs, Matt Holliday is still homerless after 17 games and 70 at-bats in Oakland. And while it's hard to think Holliday is going to slug only .329 all season, if he doesn't hike that number by at least 150 points, it's going to affect more than just his free-agent price tag.
The whole motivation for A's GM Billy Beane to go out and trade for Holliday was to either contend or have a chance to auction off the best bat on the market in July. But suppose he winds up with none of the above?
"Then they've got issues," said an executive of one contender. "Every day that goes by when he doesn't hit any home runs, the price [they can ask in a deal] goes down. So do they just try to [dump] the money?
"Or suppose they wind up keeping him all year. Do they decide not to offer him arbitration to get the [compensation] picks? Do they say, 'We can't risk paying this guy $13 million next year just to get those picks?' So this could get really interesting."
Here's more reason for concern about Holliday: His power outage didn't just start this year. After Aug. 19 last season, this man hit one home run, and slugged .326, in his final 129 plate appearances of the season. So that comes to one homer in his last 203 trips. And if that funk keeps up much longer, it won't be just the Athletics' problem.
"If this continues into, say, mid-June, then [Scott] Boras has a serious problem," the same exec said. "If he's got a .410 slugging percentage and five home runs and he's like the 79th most productive corner outfielder in June, then how do you market this guy?
"He's a guy who has already turned down $86 million over four years, and now he's going to have to take a one-year deal. I just don't see what team would be willing to open its wallet and commit to a guy who has just come out of Coors Field and now, in his first year out of Coors, he does this. That's got to scare a lot of teams. So unless he picks it up, he's got to take a one-year deal. I can't see him locking himself in for three years at $27 million."
FISH FOOD: The Marlins are already concerned enough about the back of their bullpen to start (ahem) fishing around in search of a reliever who can be, for lack of a better term, this year's Ugueth Urbina. (No Alcatraz jokes, please.)
As all you Marlins historians will recall, in 2003 the Fish went out and acquired Urbina from Texas and wound up installing him as the closer by October, in front of the less-experienced Braden Looper. And from all indications, the Marlins would love to add a back-end bullpen arm again this year, to complement Matt Lindstrom and Leo Nunez.
It's way too early to speculate on who that might be. But here's one potential shopping list of relievers who could be out there around the deadline, depending on how their teams' seasons go, according to clubs we've surveyed:
Jose Valverde, Huston Street, LaTroy Hawkins, Alan Embree, Russ Springer, Octavio Dotel, Matt Thornton, Flash Gordon, Eddie Guardado, John Grabow, Ron Mahay and virtually the entire bullpen in Baltimore (especially George Sherrill, Danys Baez and Jamie Walker). Just to name a dozen or so.
PHIL-INS: But it won't be only the Marlins wheeling their shopping cart down those bullpen aisles. The Phillies are another team that has suddenly delved into the relief pitcher market.
While GM Ruben Amaro Jr. admits that the Phillies continue to "poke around" for a right-handed outfield bat, Amaro says he's actually "more pitcher-driven" at the moment. And specifically, he'd "like to bolster our bullpen."
But he's not merely talking about adding inventory. He'd like to add a late-inning-type arm -- an indication that the Phillies aren't completely convinced Brad Lidge's knee inflammation is going to clear up quickly.
"In a perfect world, I'd like to add that type of arm, absolutely," Amaro told Rumblings. "With the uncertainty about Lidge, and we don't have [the still-suspended] J.C. [Romero], and if we wind up having to use [Ryan] Madson to close without Lidge, we could use a guy like that."
Hey, who couldn't? The bad news for the Phillies is that nobody who fits that job description is gettable at the moment, unless a team like Baltimore lowers the sticker prices. "You'd have to overpay greatly to get that guy," Amaro said. But the Phillies' cart is out. So stay tuned.
JOBA JUICE: It's amazing how convinced people around the sport are these days that Joba Chamberlain's return to the Yankees' bullpen this season is a done deal. Not guessing. Not speculating. Convinced.
"At some point, they've got to throw Joba in the eighth," one front-office man said. "I don't care what they say. They're going to."
There continue to be no immediate indications that the Yankees are as convinced of that as everyone else seems to be. But if Phil Hughes' dazzling start Tuesday in Detroit was any indication of where he's headed, there's an obvious scenario there for the Yankees to reinstall Chamberlain as Mariano Rivera's bridgekeeper.
But there are still a couple of issues in the way: 1) They have to get Chien-Ming Wang fixed. If they can't, then never mind. And 2) Chamberlain hasn't been the same guy since Day One of spring training, and the Yankees need to figure out whether that's just because he's starting -- or for some other reason.
"I saw him shut out the Red Sox last year with an upper-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider," said one baseball man. "This year, he's at 90-91 [mph], and no command of anything. So at some point, I'd throw him back in the bullpen and tell him to just throw the hell out of it."
ZACK GREINKE FAN CLUB DEPT.: One thing Zack Greinke's superhuman start will finally do is put to rest, for just about ever, the parade of Greinke trade rumors that seemed to erupt every July and every November.
As recently as last winter, there were rumblings linking Greinke to both the Cubs and Braves. And if you rewind a couple of years, to the days in 2006 when Greinke was beginning his road back to Kansas City in the minor leagues, there were all kinds of vultures circling.
But in retrospect, every one of those rumors looks bogus now in the rearview mirror -- because as an official of one team says, Royals GM Dayton Moore "never wanted to trade Zack Greinke. We had numerous conversations. And he always gave us the impression he was going to do everything he could to keep him."
Before we exit this topic, here are a couple of fun reviews of Greinke from some of the great scouting minds out there:
• "You're talking about a guy with a chance to win a Cy Young. Maybe two. And maybe three. He has no-hit stuff half the time he goes out there. And I'm not kidding when I say that."
• "It's hard to think of another power guy with this kind of command and feel with four different pitches. He's Greg Maddux -- with a much better fastball."
ROOM TO MOVE: It's not a good time to be talking about relocating franchises. But there are potential crises lurking in both Oakland and Tampa Bay if new-ballpark solutions don't emerge at some point in the near future.
So where might those teams move if there are no more local options and MLB gives those teams the thumbs-up to call United Van Lines? MLB had plenty of chances to investigate its options when it looked as if the Marlins' final shot at a ballpark deal might die. And one baseball official tells us these were the prime destinations on their drawing board:
• San Antonio: The Astros and Rangers would have raised a stink. But the source tells Rumblings, unequivocally: "That would have been worked out."
• Las Vegas: There's still no ballpark that could house a big league team. But people within the sport think Vegas would gear up fast if it meant getting a club. One hang-up is that it's a media market the size of Milwaukee, and those pesky gambling issues would be tricky. But we predict you haven't heard the last of those MLB-in-Vegas rumors.
• Mexico: We're not sure where. We're not sure how. We're not sure when. But our source says, flatly: "I think Mexico will have a team. I now think that's going to happen. It might be 20 years from now, but it will happen." Hmm. If that's true, our only request is this: Could they at least wait until somebody develops a swine flu vaccine?
List of the week
Five best offseason acquisitions (so far):
• Raul Ibanez: Pat who?
• Francisco Rodriguez: Three times as many whiffs (12) as hits allowed (4)!
• Orlando Hudson: On pace for 133 runs, .408 OBP, one Gold Glove.
• Derek Lowe: Puts the ball in the air less than Woody Hayes.
• Nick Swisher: Leads all AL "new guys" in OPS, SLG, HR and RBIs.
Headline of the week
From the headline crawl at the always-amusing sportspickle.com:
YANKEE STADIUM TO SHOOT OFF FIREWORKS FOR NON-HOME RUNS
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
2hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com