Empty Seats in Baseball: Now the Fans Are on Strike

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

STANDING on the same hallowed turf where Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski snagged fly balls is a thrill toddler Nicholas Jennings will long remember.

But a few minutes near Fenway Park's left-field scoreboard on Fan Appreciation Day -- an ''open house'' on a gameless day -- isn't enough for Bradford Jennings, his camera-clicking father. Mr. Jennings is so miffed by the baseball strike that even a nostalgic rendition of ''Take Me Out to the Ballgame'' played over the stadium's speakers generates no enthusiasm for attending a game.

This is the spring of the baseball fans' discontent.

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Disillusioned by a 232-day strike that wiped out last year's playoffs and World Series, fans are staying away in droves. While Fenway Park is doing relatively well, slumping big-league attendance (down for 25 of 28 teams and more than 25 percent overall when measured against comparable home games last season) is causing its share of anxiety in baseball's executive offices.

''We're very much concerned about [the drop-off],'' says Richard Levin, executive director of public relations for Major League Baseball, the sport's top administrative body. ''The strike has done some damage.''

And not just among paying customers. At ESPN, ratings for televised games have dropped 32 percent compared with last year, says communications coordinator Rob Tobias. He predicts that ''it's going to take time to re-create the fan base.''

In Milwaukee, where attendance is down about 15 to 20 percent per game over last year, Jeff Eisenberg, the team's ticket manager, says ''some fans seem to be angry, others are apathetic, which is worse. At least when they're angry it means they still care.''

Whether Milwaukee residents intended to or not, their spectating preferences on one recent Friday night sent an unsettling message to baseball. The city's Arena Football League team, which plays indoors, outdrew the Brewers by more than 300 fans. With an average ticket price of $15, the Mustangs were outselling the Brewers.

Paul Wong, a Milwaukee restaurant-chain owner, has witnessed fan reaction firsthand as president of the Gold Club, a group of 50 local business volunteers who help sell Brewer tickets. ''There's a certain segment out there who are very bitter about the strike,'' he says. ''I personally feel badly that baseball's gone through all this and still hasn't reached an agreement, whereas pro basketball and football have worked out labor problems and now are prospering.''

It doesn't help fan loyalty knowing that until a new contract agreement is signed, another disruption is possible. Negotiations, which broke off March 30, will resume soon, according to player association boss Donald Fehr.

To make up lost ground with the public, baseball has become unusually fan friendly. Front offices are exploring all kinds of new promotions.

On Sunday, for example, the Brewers honored the first winners in a ''Major League Moment'' writing contest for schoolchildren. The top essayists were introduced during the pregame ceremonies and took their places on the field next to the Milwaukee starters for the national anthem.

''The core promotional strategy really does not change,'' Mr. Eisenberg says, ''but the stakes are higher right now. There's more urgency.''

Milwaukee players have been encouraged to ''get close to the fans.'' On Saturday, the Brewers participated in a teaching clinic and fan fest that preceded that evening's Brewers-Royals game. This, says Eisenberg, represents quite a commitment by the players, who enjoy little time with their families during the season.

In Kansas City, another of baseball's small-market cities, Royals assistant public relations director Steve Fink says ''the healing process has started a little bit.'' The players are putting on a series of instructional clinics. Fireworks, once an occasional attraction, are now a regular Friday night feature. And the July 5 home game has been designated Dream Seat Night, with $14 tickets selling for just $6.

In one of the most generous acts of the season, the Houston Astros gave away all 54,000 seats to a May 12 game in the Astrodome. Ironically, only 32,000 people attended. On the whole, Astros' attendance is down about 20 percent, according to team publicist Tyler Barnes. As with other teams, however, he says that players are putting in extra time signing autographs to please the fans. For a Meet-and- Greet promotion, each player signed 2,000 pictures.

Many organizations, it seems, have worked to send the kind of friendly vibes associated with the minor leagues, where Branch Rickey, president of the Triple-A American Association and grandson of the history-making major-league executive, says promoting the product over individual ballplayers takes precedence. ''We have to do that,'' he says, ''because a team never knows how long it's going to hold onto a player.''

Rickey says minor-league attendance figures are ''very ambiguous'' at this point in terms of any ill will spilling over from the majors. He is a great believer in the game's perennial pull, as is Andrew Zimbalist, a co-founder of the six-team United Baseball League, which will offer an alternative to Major League Baseball in 1996.

''It's too early to declare Armageddon in baseball,'' Mr. Zimbalist says. ''I don't think baseball has become less popular. Fans have reacted to the business shenanigans of Major League Baseball, and if we're able to put forward a product that is fan friendly in a variety of ways, the fans will respond.''

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