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The Mariners feasted on a perfect confluence of events in the early 2000s. They had a beautiful new stadium that was the culmination of a lengthy funding battle — one that needed the miracle season of 1995 to galvanize lawmakers and prevent a move out of town.
And, to populate the jewel that was Safeco Field, the Mariners fortuitously had a superb team that coalesced almost simultaneously with the opening of the stadium at mid-season of 1999. In 2000, the first full season at Safeco, the Mariners made the playoffs as a wild card, won 91 games, and drew 3.1 million. In 2001, ignited by newly arrived Ichiro, they soared to 116 wins, grabbed the AL West title, and attracted 3,507,975 fans to Safeco. And they rode that success to a nearly sold-out 2002 season, racking up an astounding 3,540,482 in attendance, tops in the majors.
From that peak, it’s been a steady decline for the Mariners in every way, but manifested most dramatically in attendance. And now comes a study that shows just how precipitously the mighty have fallen. The website 24/7 Wall St. on Monday released the results of an examination of the 10-year attendance of every team in the four major sports — MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL. The website, which is affiliated with AOL, looked at the most recently completed season, and compared it to the season ten years prior. The Mariners, by virtue of their 1,721,920 home fans in 2012, compared to the aforementioned 3.5 million in 2002, ranked first in attendance drop among the 122 teams that comprise those four leagues.
The study cited 13 teams that are “running out of fans,” in their words, and the Mariners’ plunge of 51.4 percent led the pack. They were ahead — a dubious distinction — of three baseball teams: the Cleveland Indians (minus 38.7 percent), the Houston Astros (36.1 percent) and the Arizona Diamondbacks (32 percent). An NHL team, the Dallas Stars, came in next at 23.2 percent, followed the Oakland A’s (22.6 percent), the Detroit Pistons (22.3 percent), New York Mets (22 percent), Baltimore Orioles (19.7 percent), Columbus Blue Jackets (19.2 percent), Washington Wizards (19.1 percent), Milwaukee Bucks (19 percent) and Miami Dolphins (17.1 percent).
I don’t think it’s surprising that baseball, with seven teams among the 13, would be the most volatile sport, considering how many more home games they play than other sports — twice as many as the NBA, the next-closest sport in terms of longevity of schedule. In bad years, there’s a lot more opportunity for fans to lose interest and bail out.
And I don’t think anyone should be surprised that the Mariners rank so highly. Not long ago, I chronicled their staggering decline in season-ticket sales — 62 percent over those same 10 years. That’s what happens when you consistently put a sub-par product on the field, as the Mariners have done since 2004 — seven last-place finishes in nine years, with five seasons of 90-plus losses, and two with more than 100 defeats. Last year, Safeco Field played to 44.4-percent capacity, lowest in baseball. They’ve gone from basically selling out the place every night to being not even half-full (and on most nights, that’s stretching it).
The love affair with the Mariners that blossomed in the early days of Safeco Field has fizzled, and now we have more tangible evidence of just how starkly.