In Ariz. desert, support dries up

Baseball: The 4-year-old Diamondbacks have made the playoffs and play in a beautiful park, but fewer people are coming to see them and the club is losing money.

April 24, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX - Two hours before the first pitch, thousands of kids, their parents in tow, are filling Jefferson Street outside Bank One Ballpark. But they're not going to see the Diamondbacks.

Snow White is starring next door at America West Arena, and although she's 144 years old and has lost a couple of miles off her fastball, she's still giving baseball a run for its money this sunny Saturday.

"There's no contest," says Gail Brown as she's tugged toward the arena by four youngsters. "We're talking `Snow White on Ice.' "

The Diamondbacks have accomplished a lot in their first three seasons. They compete in a gorgeous, $368 million, air-conditioned ballpark with a retractable roof, have been to the playoffs and are led by three-time Cy Young Award winner and potential Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

What's not to love?

Apparently plenty.

Their attendance has been dropping like a pebble from the rim of the Grand Canyon.

The first season, the team drew 3.6 million fans. Year 2 - the year the Diamondbacks went to the playoffs - they drew 3 million. Last season, it was 2.9 million.

Opening Day this year was a sellout, but the next day, even with the Diamondbacks giving away baseballs, the team sold 15,000 fewer tickets and had a lot of no-shows for the game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Last night's crowd of 23,328 - even with Johnson pitching - was the smallest ever at Bank One, the second time that mark has been set this season.

"I should be selling Disney programs," grumbles Scott Fader as he hawks $1 game-day programs with Mark McGwire on the cover. "This is a Saturday. I don't even want to think about Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights this year."

Phoenix, a metropolitan area of 3 million, has professional men's and women's basketball, hockey, football, indoor soccer and arena football. It also has minor-league hockey, baseball and highly competitive college teams. And on a sunny weekend day, more than 200 area golf courses are packed.

"The dollar can go only so far," says Dave Knoer, a professional photographer taking his sons and nephews to see the Diamondbacks. "They'll have to build a fan base, one that takes advantage of the good years and gives them a cushion to deal with the bad."

The hardest part of building a base, says the man in charge of marketing the National League expansion team, is getting and keeping people's attention.

"It's tough to carve out a part of the pie," acknowledges Scott Brubaker, a Diamondbacks senior vice president. "We're a big city with a lot to do.

"We're not like the Yankees or Red Sox or Cubs, where generations of families grew up with a team. The Cubs are not just a part of people's lives; it's part of their culture. People are Cubs fans, and they don't even know why."

The number of Diamondbacks season-ticket holders has dropped from 37,000 to 22,000, a decline Brubaker concedes is "more than we expected."

But, he says, that also is part of the team and fans getting used to each other.

"People didn't realize what a lifestyle decision it is to buy season tickets," he says. "It's not one night out or deciding to go to the movies. It's a major commitment of time."

But there are other troubling numbers. The payroll has ballooned from $32 million to $85 million in three years. Ticket prices have been raised twice since 1998, making the Diamondbacks the 15th-most-expensive team in the major leagues, just behind the Orioles. The average age of the starters, though not approaching Snow White's, is 34 - the highest in the majors.

"We know we don't have much time together," says Brian Anderson, 28, a left-handed pitcher. "Let's face it, we're an older team. We realize time is running out."

It cost a lot of money to put a baseball team in Phoenix. Diamondbacks managing partner Jerry Colangelo, who also is president and general manager of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, had to pay a $130 million franchise fee to get into the major leagues and $115 million for his share of building the Bank One Ballpark.

In an article earlier this month on the state of baseball, Forbes magazine reported that 19 teams made money last year; the Diamondbacks are one of the 11 that did not.

Last week, an appeals court judge in Arizona ruled the team owed an additional $6 million for land used to build the ballpark, or "The BOB," as it is called.

That doesn't sound like a lot of money for an organization that Forbes recently estimated is worth $245 million.

But these days, $6 million for the Diamondbacks honcho is like two weeks' pay to a blue-collar worker with a family of four to feed.

The team has operating losses in excess of $41 million over the past two years. It has borrowed $53 million from its core investors and has a $10 million loan co-signed by Major League Baseball. As an expansion team, the Diamondbacks will have to wait two more years before sharing the revenue from the national television contract.

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