If no one shows up for a baseball game…

May 16, 2010

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow follows through on a pitch against the Chicago White Sox during the first inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Toronto April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

In North America sports culture summer is the time for baseball. The MLB season kicks off in early April and for the most part flies under the radar for the first few months as fans’ attention is focused on the NBA playoffs, the NFL draft and to a lesser extend the NHL playoffs.

By the middle of June an NBA champion is crowned, (sorry LeBron, maybe next year with your new team) the NFL is as far removed from the ever watchful media’s eye as it ever is, (thank you Brian Cushing, OTA’s were still a few weeks away) and the NHL playoff run receives unprecedented media coverage…in Canada.

Until then, baseball only dominates the headlines for three reasons. Fame, finances, and futility.

But when the middle June rolls around this year a disturbing trend will begin making headlines, one that could dominate baseball for the rest of the season.

Since the implementation of the luxury tax in 2003, the average number of teams that failed to fill at least 50% of their stadium for the season was 3.5. The three years before the tax twice 10 teams failed to hit the 50% mark and once nine teams were under.

But this season a whopping eight clubs are already below the 50% threshold. Two other teams, the Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks, are barely filling half of their stadiums and with both clubs already 10+ games out of the division lead, attendance numbers may well decrease as the season wears on.

The tax, while not a hard salary cap like the NFL or NHL has, was suppose to level out the playing field somewhat and help small market clubs compete with teams like the New York Yankees who generate revenues upwards of $500 million a year. One of the thought process behind the tax was that when teams are in contention, fans will attend. It’s hard, especially in these economic conditions, to expect people to show up to games in August when their club is wallowing in the basement 35+ games out of a playoff spot.

Make no mistake, even though last year’s World Series win was their first championship since 2000, every team is trying to catch the Yankees. They are the model franchise, both on and off the field. With a team payroll in excess of $206 million it marks the third straight year they have eclipsed the $200 million mark. Furthermore, the Bronx Bombers have exceeded the luxury tax every year since its inception. This forces other big market clubs such as the Red Sox, Cubs, Phillies and Mets into the mindset that they must spend more just to compete.

Meanwhile Toronto has been near the bottom of the attendance chart for the past decade, with the situation hitting an all-time low this year when barely 10,000 fans watched the Chicago White Sox pound the Jays. For the year, Toronto is just over 30% capacity, and playing in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and extremely talented Tampa Bay Rays, it likely means the Jays will be out of contention again in August, and they could set new lows for tickets sold.

But not every club that spends large sums on their payroll reaps the rewards at the gate. Since the 2006 season the Seattle Mariners have averaged the 10th highest payroll, but are 17th in the league in attendance over that time period. The fact that the M’s have only finished as high as second and twice finished last, play a large part in their poor gate numbers.

Bottom line, anytime the focus shifts from the performance on the diamond to off it, it’s bad news for the game. Unless baseball can find a way to even out the playing field, 2010 could become the year of the empty seats.

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