As the Major League Baseball winter meetings commence in Nashville, one has to wonder if the Seattle Mariners front office is not only thinking about how to snag the Kansas City Royals’ Billy Butler, but also about the dismal news that came out of the study released by 24/7 Wall St . According to the analysis released this week, the Seattle Mariners saw a 51.4 percent decline in fan attendance during the past ten years. As if that news were not dire enough, this drop in attendance is more than any other professional sport, including the NHL, NFL and NBA. This is not a statistic any manager wants to read in the morning paper or hear discussed on talk radio. Safeco’s capacity last year hovered at just 44.4 percent, a Major League Baseball low, and to add to this dismal news, season ticket sales have plummeted by 61 percent since 2002.
The Pacific Northwest has a fickle relationship with baseball. Cities with a fan base that hang on during dreary years- Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati- have a relationship with baseball that is more familial, like going home for Thanksgiving, knowing that your crazy Aunt Edna will throw up her sixth martini before the pumpkin pie is served. Everyone shows up even though they know it won’t be pretty. Portland has argued for more than a decade about bringing baseball into town and Seattle, well, it's a football town, and now a soccer town. The Seahawks, Sounders and Huskies rule the sports landscape. It might also be good hockey town if they could ever get the NHL there, or what's left of it.
At play also is the economics of baseball, which is no longer wholly dependent on ticket revenue. 710 AM ESPN’s Mike Salk said in an interview on Seattle’s Morning News, “Baseball's a little different the way money's made these days. They get revenue-sharing dollars from around the league. So all 30 teams put money into a hat and then they spread it out. An even bigger factor is TV revenue. The richest teams, like the Yankees and Red Sox, make far more than anyone else, thanks to billion-dollar deals with their own networks. The Mariners will continue to make bank from their agreement with Root Sports, where ratings remain strong despite the team's performance.” Additionally the Mariners, enfranchised in 1977, are just one of three teams in the League under corporate ownership – Nintendo; and Nintendo can absorb a loss. When the Walt Disney Co. owned the Anaheim Angels, they took a loss in order to use the team as a promotional vehicle.
If the Mariners can sign enough big hitters, or a big hitter, to inch their offense up from last place, fans will likely crawl out from under their umbrellas and start attending games again. They could also move the fence in and increase the probability of homeruns, which would be an obvious crowd pleaser. Fans love the long ball. But until the Mariners start winning again, Safeco Stadium could end up looking as dismal as the present day Ebbets Field.