The California Angels drew a pretty good crowd for Opening Night at Anaheim Stadium. More than 51,000 showed up, though the Angels had the worst record in the American League last year.
It was the kind of turnout that might make you wonder if the fans really were all that put off by baseball's bitter labor dispute. That is, until you take into account that the highest-priced ticket went for $1 and was good for an entry in a post-game drawing for a new car. The last time a good seat went that cheaply, they could have raffled off a brand-new Model T.
The Angels decided to take a financial hit to avoid the embarrassment of playing to an empty ballpark. They found out last week how their fans felt about the baseball strike, when 3,064 showed up for a pair of exhibition games against the San Diego Padres at the Big A -- a stadium that holds nearly 70,000 for baseball. They are bracing for another tiny crowd when the club returns home to play the Oakland Athletics tomorrow night.
The backlash has begun.
In Pittsburgh, the beleaguered Pirates drew just 34,841 for their season opener -- 15,000 below capacity -- and sold just 7,047 tickets for their second game at Three Rivers Stadium. In San Diego, the Padres drew 41,961 for the opener, but attendance dropped to 7,468 the next day. There are exceptions -- most notably in Boston and at the new ballparks in Denver, Cleveland and Arlington, Texas -- but first-week attendance is off at almost every other major-league venue.
Overall, attendance during the first week of the season has been down only 4 percent from last April, but the drop-off would be larger if not for heavy discounting by some teams. Last April, teams sold 9,290,363 tickets for 317 games, an average of 29,307 (the season average was 31,611). For the 66 games during the first week of this season, teams sold 1,863,463 tickets, an average of 28,234.
Those numbers are music to the ears of Ed Bunker, whose Baltimore-based Fan Out America is promoting a limited boycott of major-league parks. He isn't taking credit for the drop in attendance nationwide, but he can take comfort in the fact that fans are making themselves conspicuous by their absence.
"I was very happy to see that," said Bunker, "but I can't say I'm surprised. This is significant. For months, people were calling me the last angry fan, but I think there are a lot of people out there who feel the way I do. We don't want to hurt the game. We love baseball. We just want to see the players and owners have some sense of respect for the local economies and the fans."
Major League Baseball is spending millions on an advertising campaign to lure fans back. The game's bland marketing hook, "Welcome to the Show," doesn't exactly reflect the urgent need for both owners and players to reconnect with an alienated public, but there is no question that both sides recognize that they have done great damage to the image of the sport.
Now, the payback. The game already has lost nearly $900 million in revenues to the work stoppage, with the owners realizing no tangible economic gain from their hard-line collective bargaining strategy. The players lost more than $350 million in salaries because of the strike, and are seeing salaries recede because of the economic damage suffered by ownership. That's before factoring in any long-term impact on attendance.
Interim commissioner and Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig has felt the immediate impact on the attendance of his club -- one of the small-market teams that could be most damaged by a further decline in revenues -- but said he isn't sure yet what to make of it.
"It's much too early to judge exactly where we are," Selig said. "We haven't had enough time to sell tickets, and there is a residue of bitterness over the strike -- there's no question about that. There is a lot of work to be done."
The Orioles will come out of it without suffering serious financial harm. Today's home opener is expected to be a sellout. There are about 15,000 tickets remaining for each of the next two home games -- significantly more than usual -- but the overall attendance picture is very good. The club already has sold 2.8 million of the approximately 3.3 million tickets available for the 1995 season.
"We know we have a unique situation here," said Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss. "It's a one-team town, and the fans have appreciated the stance that Peter Angelos took to protect the game from the fraud of replacement baseball. We also field a very competitive team and have one of the premier stadiums in the country as well as the good fortune of Cal's streak going for us. But we know we can't take that for granted. We may have sold 2.8 million tickets, but we're still aggressively trying to promote the team."