Magazine article Insight on the News

New Ball Parks Help Boost MLB Attendance

Magazine article Insight on the News

New Ball Parks Help Boost MLB Attendance

Article excerpt

Baseball's recovery from the players' strike is almost complete. Attendance this season is up 5.8 percent from the same time last year, and it is closely approaching prestrike levels.

After baseball's 232-day strike ended in April 1995, fans showed their displeasure by staying away from the ballpark -- attendance dropped 20 percent. Since then, the game has made a slow climb back toward the record levels of 1993 and 1994, despite a small step backward last year attributed to fast-climbing ticket prices.

This season, thanks in part to fan-friendly ticket promotions and the game's continued offensive explosion, average attendance has surpassed 28,000 per game. Assuming that mark increases another 10 percent this summer -- historically, attendance jumps as schools let out and the weather warms -- baseball will post its highest average attendance since 1994, when the average before the strike reached 31,612.

The National League's recovery at the gate has been faster than in the American League because of the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire homerun duels. The National League is on pace to break its total attendance mark of 38.4 million set in 1998.

"This says a lot about the game of baseball," says Richard Levin, a spokesman for Major League Baseball. "The game has shown a lot of stability since the strike, and interest is rising in steadily increasing numbers. We've passed 70 million in total attendance the last two years and will definitely do that again this year. We're in the middle of a great renaissance of the game."

Predictably, San Francisco, Detroit and Houston, each playing this season in new stadiums, lead the charge in gate increases. The San Francisco Giants, now ensconced in the lush Pacific Bell Park, have more than doubled average attendance to nearly 41,000, and most seats for the rest of their season are sold. Large-market teams such as the New York Yankees and Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers continue to find new ways to pack fans into their parks.

Several smaller-market teams also have succeeded in drawing more fans. The Cincinnati Reds, who traded this past winter for superstar Ken Griffey Jr., have seen average attendance grow by 77 percent to 33,886. The Kansas City Royals boosted early-season attendance by 17 percent, the Pittsburgh Pirates are up by 7 percent and the Montreal Expos, playing under new owner Jeffrey Loria, are up 25 percent so far this season.

Baseball, however, still is struggling with several problem markets. The Expos draw an average of only 14,078 fans per game, second-worst in baseball. Attendance figures for the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Toronto Blue Jays are down sharply compared to this time last year. The Brewers move into a new complex next spring, but the Twins, Devil Rays and Blue Jays have no plans for new stadiums to help their causes.

"We probably got hit with the strike at the worst possible time," says Blue Jays spokesman Howard Starkman. "We were coming off three seasons of 4 million in attendance and two world rifles. We had three sub-.500 seasons right after, and lost a lot of season tickets. We're still sort of reconnecting with the fan base."

The vital signs look good for nearly two-thirds of the leagues' teams, but industry observers still are looking for a breakout story to resonate with the public. …

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