By Dan Bernstein–
CHICAGO (WSCR) If we were really paying attention, we would have seen this coming.
The first clue came in January, when the Cubs unveiled their “Pick 13” Plan (northside-speak for “Ozzie Plan”), after seeing that a season of sellouts was unassured. This was announced a day before the Cubs Convention opened, which itself saw plenty of passes and discounted hotel packages available.
Up went the subsequent billboards that promoted the cheaper tickets with images of Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols, since the packages allowed for tickets to games against the Yankees and Cardinals. The last time we saw a Chicago team selling opposing stars so brazenly, we were in the dark age of the Tim-Floyd-era Bulls, who tried to lure us with the chance to see a young Kobe Bryant and a prime Allen Iverson.
2010 attendance was down 100,000 from the previous year, and the new owners saw the empty seats that meant tickets sold but unused, deflating the important revenues from concessions and souvenirs. The real numbers were more daunting.
Seagulls don’t buy beer.
Tom Ricketts and new marketing chief Wally Hayward were worried that the Cubs’ buzz was on the wane, and tried to get out ahead of things. We heard sales mumbo-jumbo like “dynamic ticketing,” “variable-based strategy,” and “marketplace philosophy,” all of which we should have translated as “Uh-oh, we may have a problem here.”
And they were right. Perhaps more so than they even knew.
I never thought I would see so soon what I saw Sunday, on a 63-degree afternoon under cloudless skies when the first pitch was thrown for a Mothers’ Day meeting with the division-favorite Reds: swaths of green where people were supposed to be. This was not a drizzly, April weeknight or a blustery, out-of-the-race afternoon in late September – it was, by all descriptions at gametime, a beautiful day for baseball in Chicago.
31,931 tickets were sold for the game, with the actual crowd estimated at around 25,000. It was the fourth-lowest turnout of the year. Attendance is down ten percent this season, and that’s not the butts-in-seats number – that’s including the sold tickets wasting away in desk drawers, file cabinets and the storefronts of weeping, bewildered scalpers.
Only a handful of games so far have surpassed last year’s smallest crowd by the same date, and the marketers are at it again, trying to get fans to actually want to use their tickets. Certain weekday games now feature cheap beer and dollar-dogs, and a bleacher ticket on a Monday has now also earned you the sad, ironic symbol of a Ron Santo t-shirt that reads “PASS10N.”
What’s more troubling is that this is occurring as the Cubs are competitive and interesting in a division seemingly there for the taking. They made a big preseason trade for a front-line starting pitcher in Matt Garza, retained an upbeat manager who compiled a winning record, boast one of baseball’s most exciting, talented young players in Starlin Castro, and are getting a resurgent start from Alfonso Soriano.
Attendance is down elsewhere too, it should be noted, with a historically-dreary April weighing on the numbers. The bottom has fallen out for the Dodgers and Mets, and even the first-place Yankees are off pace.
More of us have giant, wall-mounted HDTVS through which to consume baseball at a much lower cost, and many have discretionary income still recovering from a once-in-a-generation recession. MLB knows this, and is making money by selling us games on various platforms through their Baseball Advanced Media unit. We can buy baseball without going to the park.
But unlike the Yankees, the Cubs do not have their own TV network to offset losses elsewhere. They lack the advertising inventory of a modern ballpark, and are far more reliant than other teams on gameday revenue. The hit they take is palpable, and has a real impact on their business.
The plans for massive, expensive Wrigley renovations, especially since taxpayer help has been laughed off the table, now may exist on shifting ground as the Cubs bring projected income into focus. How many people can be counted on to swarm the proposed shops, bars and restaurants? How good will the team have to be to bring the sizzle back, and how much will that cost?
The payroll this year is $125 million, ranking sixth in MLB. Fans look at contracts coming off the books and salivate over Pujols or Prince Fielder taking over at first base next year. If things don’t improve sharply, either could be a pipe dream.
Attendance will improve, I have no doubt. The Cardinals are in town tonight (bringing with them plenty of fans to snap up unwanted tickets), and it’s 80 summery degrees outside.
Meanwhile, Derrick Rose and the Bulls play the Atlanta Hawks in game five of a hard-fought NBA playoff series at 7:00. I know what I’ll be watching.
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s blogs here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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