No-shows shows Dodger Stadium not the happiest place in the City of Angels

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So this is how the McPerfect Storm has manifested itself.

As the Dodgers’ payroll department grinds toward a deadline to see if there’s anything left to cut end-of-the-month checks, a not-so-quirky thing is happening at Dodger Stadium.

Fans don’t appear to be buying in.

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The Dodgers may be averaging a respectable 36,360 a game after 25 home dates, but it’s only ninth best in all of baseball, and they’re the only team in the top 10 that isn’t filling at least 75 percent of the stadium each night. In a 56,000-seat facility, they’re only filling it at about 65 percent rate.

Compared to the 2010 season, the Dodgers’ official attendance deficit thus far is more than 7,100 paid per game – the greatest drop for any of the 30 big-league teams (12 of which have actually seen increases). The Dodgers have dragged the overall MLB attendance average to where it would actually be about break even from a year ago rather than down by about 200 fans per game across the board through May 25.
Season seats sales, which once were capped to allow walk-up sales, are reportedly down from 27,000 to about 17,000.

Here is the BaseballReference.com comparisons of the 2011 season to the 2010 season in attendance (linked here).

And while tickets sold are the only figures reported, the tally of no-shows, which aren’t calculated for public consumption, can be guestimated at some 5,000-to-10,000 per contest.

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As a three-game weekend series starts Friday night against Florida with another fireworks promotion, the Dodgers could reach 1 million paid by Monday’s Memorial Day contest against Colorado. But they’d still remain on pace to have their first sub-3 million season since the aftertaste of the 1994-’95 players strike, ending a streak of 14 consecutive seasons.

The Frank and Jamie McCourt backlash to their public divorce, where court documents revealed plans of cutting payroll and increasing ticket prices to go along with other unscrupulous business practices, sits uncomfortably at the top of the list of reasons why many frustrated fans are staying away.

Having to see police with guns in holsters milling around the park, trying to quell any safety issues, doesn’t add to the stadium ambiance.

Factor in the quality of play on the field, the lack of star power, the economy, the fact schools are still in session and the usual competition from the Lakers. It’s a darn good laundry list of excuses as to why the numbers stack up as they do.

Is it any one of them over another?

“I think it’s a culmination of all of them at a time when people are fed up and can choose do to do many other things,” said David Carter, the executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, a professor of sports business at the school, and principal of the Sports Business Group, which provides stragetic marking and business development services to the sports industry.

“Analyzing attendance figures are interesting, but it might be more ceremonial than the other business indicators that are out there.

“Sure, empty seats don’t buy Dodger Dogs or impress advertisers or sponsors or the media, but it’s really a backstory of a perception that creates more of a challenge for the team to overcome.”

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Television ratings for games on Prime Ticket and KCAL-Channel 9 have actually held steady from last year to this season – an indicator that fans have maintained interest, but are just waiting to see if MLB takes over and orchestrates the sale to a new owner.

“I watch every game – on TV,” said Tom Leykis, the former FM-radio shock jock who owned Dodgers field-level season seats until he didn’t renew last year when he realized he couldn’t even give them away free to friends anymore.

“Sometimes, I feel as if I’m literally the only one watching. When you watch a game and see all the empty seats – no matter what camera angle they use – and it looks like nobody’s going, then no one wants to go. You’d think by now they’d at least hire out-of-work actors as seat fillers like they do at the Grammy Awards. It just looks bad.

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“Listen, I’m not enjoying any of this. I want Dodger Stadium to be a fun place. It’s such a great moment to go out to Opening Day every year. But it’s just gone downhill. I don’t want to see Dodger Stadium as the object of ridicule. And I don’t want to ridicule it. But until people stop spending, things will only get worse. There was a time when I didn’t care if the team was winning or losing, you just like to sit in the stadium and have a beer. That’s the way I felt about it. It was the experience. But when Dodger Stadium turned into Clockwork Orange, I’m sitting at home and listening to Vin Scully.”

Compare that to Los Angeles’ other team, the barely above-.500 Angels, averaging 38,834 a game, fourth best in the game. They could outdraw the Dodgers in home attendance for the first time ever – that goes back to the Angels’ creation 50 years ago.
Considering that in 2009, the Dodgers led all of baseball in paying customers with 3,761,653, an average of 46,440, filling the stadium at about 80 percent each game, today’s state of affairs lead to a variety of theories.

The line of least resistance should start with the most obvious.

== The McCourt jesters:

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All the recent damage-control measures by Frank McCourt to tell everyone he’s recommitted to keeping the team, paying bills, and rectifying any mistakes he’s made in the past might be moot at this point.

Too many postings on Dodger fans sites, or calls into the “DodgerTalk” post-game radio shows, cite the McCourt factor as the reason they’ve decided to take a break from going out to games.

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“Fans are tired of all the mess and they are not willing to spend their money to support McCourt,” said Roberto Baly, editor of the VinScullyIsMyHomeboy.com blog. “I do believe there is a McCourt boycott. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s thousands of fans that are boycotting. And the team performance on the field kinda goes to the McCourt boycott. Most feel that the team is struggling because McCourt didn’t put a great team this season because he lacked the sources.”

Leykis said the release of information in the McCourt divorce papers about how their sons were being paid and how they avoided paying income taxes, more than anything was the last straw for many.

“Why should I invest money into that?” he said. “When you read about all their future plans, and no one has denied any of that, you see that all they cared about were themselves.

“There’s no doubt that Dodgers fans are voting with their feet.”

Now, it’s payback time.

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== The Bryan Stow aftermath:

The Dodgers-Giants’ four-game series to start 2011 averaged more than 48,000 tickets sold, even as the news began to circulate about how Stow, the Giants’ fan, suffered a severe attack in the Dodger Stadium parking lot after Opening Day.

When the Giants came back to play two games at Dodger Stadium on April 18-19, the average was down by about 14,000 per game.

“The ballpark used to be a safe haven where you could take your kids, but I have noticed in my area a lot of unsavory characters in the past few years,” said John Utley, a Manhattan Beach resident who shares his season seats on the loge level near third base with seven other partners. “The last game we went to, it felt like being at a Raiders game. Even with the LAPD everywhere, a lot of guys spend the whole game drinking, and you notice by the third inning that the tone starts to change.”

Leykis, who is finalizing a deal that will officially recognize his $50,000 contribution to the reward money offered by the Los Angeles Police Department for information that leads to the capture of the two prime suspects in the beating, calls the Stow attack something that “accelerated a trend that had already existed.”

Says Baly: “Many of my friends don’t like the huge LAPD presence. They say they feel uncomfortable or it takes the joy out of the game. I disagree with that point. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t even pay attention to the LAPD.

“But sometimes you feel that there is more LAPD inside the park than fans.”

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== Where’s the buzz?

In 2005, a season where the Dodgers finished at 20 games under .500, it still had the best attendance of all National League teams at 3.6 million.

The Dodger Stadium experience could sell itself if the team on the field couldn’t.

Not anymore.

Andre Ethier’s 30-game hitting streak gained some traction, as did Matt Kemp’s fast start.

If only there was a third outfielder with some pop, dreadlocks, and the flair for the dramatic who could be added to the mix.

There’s no Eric Gagne to wait around for to save a game each night. Not even Jonathan Broxton, shelved with an injury, has been able to match it.

Clayton Kershaw? Here’s something to make your head wobble — not even his bobblehead night was close to the automatic sellouts that this promotion used to be.

The Kershaw giveaway drew only 42,138 on Tuesday May 17. That’s easily the smallest Dodgers home crowd for a bobblehead night since the very first one – a Tommy Lasorda statue in April, 2001 had just 34,000, well before the novelty caught on.

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== The Purple and Gold:

The four smallest Dodger Stadium crowds this season have been on days when the Lakers had playoff games going head-to-head.

The worst was on a Sunday afternoon, April 17, against St. Louis – which ended with a Kemp walk-off homer. The paid attendance was 27,439. There were some 19,000 at Staples Center at the same time when the Lakers opened the NBA playoffs with a loss to New Orleans.

But the Lakers’ quick playoff exit – they disappeared on May 8 – should absolve them from being blamed for any more Dodger attendance damage.

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== The economy:

When a family of four can’t get out of a game at Dodger Stadium without paying $226.36 for tickets, hot dogs, drinks and a souvenir – that, according to the latest Team Marketing Research project that determines the Fan Cost Index – how’s that going to fly?

The Dodgers rank No. 7 among all MLB teams in this matrix, above the league average of $197.35. The Angels are the fourth-best deal at $129.50 – about $100 less a game than the Dodgers.

Here is the Team Marketing Research annual project on determining the Fan Cost Index (linked here).

Mike Schwartz of Redondo Beach, a Kings’ season-seat holder and lifelong Dodgers fans who only attended a few games a season, decided recently to actually invest in a Dodgers season-seat package.

The new Dodger promotion package of games that involve all the major give-away nights at $12 a ticket “was just the incentive I needed to place my order,” he said.

Schwartz, who usually attends the games with his wife, has this perspective on the situation:

“Despite the tragedy that took place on opening day, I could see why fans would shy away from attendance. I had my concerns or my safety as well — until I attended my first game. The reality is that I’ve never felt safer at a Dodger game in the 20-plus I’ve been a fan.

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“It is sad to see the attendance hit record lows. I’m not saying that McCourt is to blame for the current state of things. But if a change in leadership turns out to be just what this team needs right now, then I’m all for it.”

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