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Bad teams, new stadiums no attraction to fans
NEW YORK -- Many of baseball's gleaming new ballparks have a different sight this season: thousands of empty seats.
Blame it on losing teams and lousy weather.
In the first two weeks of the season, eight ballparks have drawn their lowest crowds for a regularly scheduled game, including seven that were part of the new-ballpark boom.
Overall, the average attendance for a major league game was down 3.5 percent in the first two weeks of the season, to 29,403.
"We've had a number of losing seasons in a row," Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy said. "The fans just get tired of it, and I don't blame them."
Pittsburgh, coming off nine consecutive losing seasons, saw season tickets drop from 17,000 last year in its first season at PNC Park to 10,000 this year. Florida, purchased by Jeffrey Loria from John Henry following a stagnant offseason, sold 4,000 season tickets, down from 6,000 last year.
Still, that's better than it was at the start of spring training, when only several hundred had been sold.
"We're pretty happy with where we got to," Marlins president David Samson said. "Our selling season didn't start until Feb. 16. Our focus was just on getting started, and having a full selling season for '03. We have no specific mandates for attendance goals for this season."
Florida, which hopes to get a new ballpark eventually, drew a record-low 4,466 to Pro Player Stadium on April 11. Other lows for regularly scheduled games include Detroit's Comerica Park (11,833), PNC Park (12,795), Milwaukee's Miller Park (14,090), Houston's Astros Field (21,528), Baltimore's Camden Yards (22,781), Cleveland's Jacobs Field (23,760) and Denver's Coors Field (29,522).
Milwaukee's season ticket sales dropped from about 14,000 to about 11,000 in the second season of Miller Park.
"Last year was the inaugural year of a new ballpark," said Brewers president Wendy Selig-Prieb, the daughter of commissioner Bud Selig. "To be able to match those numbers, particularly early on? Very, very difficult. Have we seen a lessening in our season ticket numbers? Yeah. But it's still the second-highest in team history."
Still, it's a lot better than the old days.
"I looked back in 2000, which was the final year of County Stadium, in games two and three, we drew 7,000 fans," she said. "We need to remember that perspective."
A 3-10 start didn't help the Brewers. Detroit, in its third season at Comerica Park, began 0-11, the fifth-worst start in the majors since 1900.
"We need to play better baseball," said Dave Dombrowski, who left the Marlins last year to become president of the Tigers. "We're in a large city, a great sports town. The passion is phenomenal. It's just we need to be in a position that people start to believe in us."
Part of baseball's drop is due to several teams playing home games in the northern part of the country during early April cold snaps.
But fans turn out for a winner no matter what the temperature. They worry whether the team is hot, not the ballpark.
With the Rangers off to a 3-10 start, The Ballpark in Arlington has seen four crowds under 22,000 -- the lowest since 1996.
Ticket sales dropped in Cleveland, where there were winter wonders about the Indians' success this season. Off to an 11-1 start, the Indians sold 60,000 single-game tickets during the first two weeks of April, raising their total for the season to 2.35 million. Last year, they drew 3.18 million.
Teams that don't win as much often resort to promotions. The Marlins opened a "fan conversion booth," where T-shirts and caps from other teams can be exchanged for Marlins T-shirts and caps. The old memorabilia is donated by the Marlins to charities in the cities of the opposing teams.
Samson also instituted a plan to deal with the Marlins' sometimes frequent rain delays.
"We have rainy day activities. When the tarp goes on during the game, a big siren goes off." he said. "There's a karaoke contest. There's putting contests with trivia questions and prizes. There's trivia contests and ballpark bingo."