As expected in this strained economy, attendance across Baseball's major leagues is down 5%. Some teams are weathering the storm better than others. The Toronto Blue Jays are not one of those teams.
Attendance at the Rogers Centre is near the bottom of the majors. Garth Woolsey of the Toronto Star penned a great article that takes a look at the raw attendance figures at the Rogers Centre for both this season and seasons past.
The article points out that the lower attendance figures can be partially explained by management not including free tickets when reporting overall attendance figures this season. The article also very aptly points out the correlation between on field performance and attendance.
However, this does not explain how a fast start and, up until about a month ago, a winning team was still unable to get fans to come out to the ballpark.
As an avid Jays fan I can think of five reasons that might help explain why the romance between the Jays and their fans has dried up.
1) The Economy:
As every team is feeling the effects of the economic downturn, this is the most logical place to start. For most fans, there is simply less money in the budget for things like an afternoon at the ballpark. This is the only situation that management really can't be blamed for. The recession is effecting everyone.
2) 15 Years of Futility:
This one is a no brainer. Toronto Blue Jays fans have had to endure 15 seasons without even a sniff of the playoffs. They are one of only four teams who haven't made the playoffs since the wild card was instituted in 1994. The others being Kansas City, The Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates. Not great company to be in.
Every year promises are made, and every year fans are treated to at best, mediocrity. This is far and away the biggest factor in explaining the downturn in attendance, not just for this season, but over the last 15 years.
At one time the Jays were biggest draw in the Major Leagues. It is no coincidence that at that time, they were also winning World Series. Hard core fans will support their team through the worst of times. Casual fans only support a winner, and the Blue Jays haven't been able to call themselves that in a very long time.
Granted, the Blue Jays are in the unenviable position of competing in Baseball's toughest division (A.L. East) alongside the free spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but they can't use that excuse on fans forever.
The reality is that Rogers Media Corp. is worth billions. The "whoa is me, we have to compete against the Yankees and Red Sox" card is wearing thinner and thinner with each passing year. Rogers has the ability to spend more on salaries, they simply choose not to.
They know it and the fans know it too.
3) Toronto FC:
Up until three seasons ago the Blue Jays benefited from the fact that they had little or no competition during the summer months in terms of another sports venue.
That all changed when Major League Soccer came to town.
Toronto FC is becoming a big draw in Toronto. Hardcore soccer fans, who are also casual baseball fans are now spending their sports entertainment dollars at BMO field instead of at Rogers Centre.
4) Ridiculous Policies:
After each visit to the Rogers Centre, one thing is becoming clearer and clearer: There exists a serious disconnect between fans and management; at both the team and stadium levels.
A day at the Rogers Centre isn't what it used to be. Compounding the fact that half the seats are empty, fans are faced with utterly ridiculous policies imposed by management.
Policies like ejecting fans for throwing opponent's home run balls back on the field and the firing of "Ice Cold Beer Guy" last season illustrate that Rogers Centre management has lost touch with baseball fans.
I have also personally witnessed Rogers Centre employees approach louder fans and ask them to be quiet. The Rogers Centre is a sporting venue, not a movie theatre. If some fans want a nice quiet afternoon at the ball park, management should set up "quiet or family" sections, and leave louder fans alone.
If management wants to bring fans back to the Stadium, they need to remember what being a baseball fan is all about.
5)No Smoking, No Re-entry: Rogers Centre's "no re-entry" policy makes no sense at all. At every other sporting venue in the city, smokers have the ability to exit the stadium/arena and have a puff if they so choose.
Not so at Rogers Centre.
As a smoker, the prospect of sitting at a ball game for 2-3 hours without being able to satisfy my cravings is a definite deterrent for me to spend a day at the ball park
For a team trying to fill seats, ignoring the needs and wants of 25% of the population of Toronto probably isn't the smartest course of action. Management should be instituting policies aimed at attracting fans back to the ball park, not creating policies to drive them away.
Whatever your position on smoking, a sports team ignoring that 25% of their fan base smokes, does so at it's own peril. Every other sports venue seems to understand this and makes an effort to accommodate their smoking fans in at least some fashion. Something the folks at Rogers Centre seem unwilling to do.
I fail to see how such a policy is designed to attract fans. I don't see how allowing smokers one or two gates to have a smoke outside the stadium would ever alienate non-smoking fans. However, the no re-entry policy as it stands most definitely alienates smoking fans.
At this point, the Blue Jays cannot afford to alienate anymore paying fans.
They don't have many to spare.