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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

April 11, 2013 at 11:12 AM

Mariners plummeting attendance and reasons why pre-season buzz hasn’t mattered much

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ADDITIONAL NOTE: There is word the Mariners are about to acquire starting pitcher Aaron Harang from the Rockies for a non-40-man-roster minor league pitcher in a move that requires MLB approval, namely because cash will be included to offset some of his salary. For those who missed it, there was good conversation about the Mariners and their attendance yesterday during my two-hour co-hosting stint with colleague Jerry Brewer on the Elise and Jerry Show on Sports Radio KJR. The first hour is in the box above and the second hour in the box below. 

Another record-low crowd turned out last night to watch the Mariners dig themselves into an early season hole by losing once again to the Houston Astros. No, it is not time to panic yet. The Mariners may have just embarassed themselves a bit on a national scale by getting blown out twice by a team everybody expects to lose 100 or more games this season, but Seattle is still just two games under .500.

The season is only 10 games old. Everybody needs to get a grip. Yes, the young core is not living up to its billing. Yes, the rotation after the top two spots remains highly suspect, especially on the back end. And yes, you would expect more from this team in the fifth year of its rebuilding plan and, quite frankly, this corner does expect more. A lot more. Anybody not expecting more at this stage should be asking themselves how long a normal season ticketholder should be expected to wait in order to watch half-decent baseball.

But again, we are only 10 games into a 162-game schedule. The losses to the Astros only count for as much as defeats suffered against the best teams in the game. Life goes on. Even without Michael Saunders.

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If Saunders misses a month, there is nothing Casper Wells was going to do to help this team more than the players already here. Wells had more than a month of regular playing time last season and was badly exposed. The Mariners have MLB players on their current squad who have shown they can play full-time in the big leagues and not have their numbers dive off a cliff. They have Endy Chavez in Class AAA if they desire an extra center fielder at the big league level and he has outperformed Wells over the course of his career playing full-time in the majors.

The fate of this season didn’t rest on the decision to keep or jettison Wells. It always relied upon — and still does — the ability of the so-called young core of players to show that the past four years of rebuilding weren’t just an excuse for the Mariners to bide time until they re-stocked their coffers and grew their franchise value on-the-cheap. That means the core of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero and other names in the starting rotation and in the bullpen will have to show they are different from the young players every other team has in some form or another.

And this crew should be different. After all, the Mariners have gained plenty of top draft picks over the years due to their abysmal on-field performance. They also have made some high-profile trades. They have taken the Tampa Bay Rays/Cleveland Indians approach to rebuilding that involves sacrificing multiple seasons at a time in the name of forming some type of core that will enable them to someday contend without having to spend a boatload of money relative to what they take in.

And make no mistake: the Mariners continue to take money in. They made just under $6 million in profit last year despite losing 87 games.

Unfortunately, like the Rays and Indians before them, the Mariners now have trouble drawing more than friends and relatives to home games even when there is some pre-season buzz about the team.

This is one of the aspects of long-term rebuilding plans that those who tout the Rays and used to tout the Indians as prime examples of doing things “The Right Way” either tend to gloss over, or forgot to do research on in the first place.

With the Mariners, their decision to wait until the very end of the off-season to complete their moves for 2013 left them in the unenviable position of having little room to use that momentum to build on season ticket sales. By the time they acquired Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse and showed they might finally put a major league offense on the field, their season ticket base had continued to erode.

If you’re going to sell season tickets, the big push has to begin right at the end of the previous season. If you’re lucky, the team will have done something noteworthy to generate optimism, then you make some off-season splashes before the New Year in order to sustain that momentum throught the colder months.

Had the Mariners started to sell tickets last August, when Felix Hernandez threw his perfect game and the team was cutting a swath through some of the dregs of the American League, they might have had a shot at holding on to their ticket base. Instead, the Mariners played good teams in September, predictably lost more than they won, and essentially killed all of the momentum they had generated in August.

Fans paying big bucks to go watch a team night in and night out — as opposed to those who follow a team for free on the internet — are more likely to adopt a “show me” attitude when it comes to future hope. Mariners manager Eric Wedge can make all of the “It’s real” comments he wants and he may even be 100 percent correct. He was correct about it in Cleveland, too, and in the end, fans there still responded with a collective yawn and empty seats. Because until paying fans see some of that “it’s real” stuff on the field, it’s going to do little to ease the continued feeling that — after years of being subjected to a sub-par product — they are being ripped off.

And so, take that end of another losing Mariners season in 2012, then consider what the team did behind the scenes. The Mariners went ahead and raised season ticket prices for the vast majority of their subscribers without bothering to tell them in the first place. It was only after we reported on it that they issued a public apology, but by then, it was a bit late to soothe some hurt feelings. Throw in the team’s perceived stance towards the new arena proposed by Chris Hansen and it’s safe to say the Seattle sports fan’s view of the Mariners last October was probably at an all-time low on the trust scale.

Then, there was the team’s failed bid and non-bids to land premier free agents and trade commodities. Josh Hamilton, Torii Hunter, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Justin Upton and others all wound up elsewhere. Team payroll continued to go down, to the point where the on-field product we now see every night costs less than it did to open the 87-loss 2012 season back when Ichiro was still being paid $18 million annually. In other words, his salary was not replaced by the new additions.

It was only late in the off-season game that Morales and Morse were landed and, by and large, those weren’t bad “gets” for a team with its back up against the proverbial wall. Imagine what the team’s record would be today without Morse, Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay had the Mariners just continued going all-youth and let the young core hit in the middle of the batting order. I’d say, a 1-9 record wouldn’t be far off-the-mark and then we’d be having an entirely different conversation this morning.

But the bottom line is: season ticket bases are what dictates most what your early season crowds are going to be on a cold April night with two non-contending teams going at it. Your walkup draw is going to be almost zero.

And so, the record low crowds of the past two nights are not a shock. The shocking part would have been had the Mariners actually improved attendance over this time last year. Our first clue about the reduced season ticket base was the non-sellout during the Home Opener. This, even though the Mariners made it a prime time game instead of the more traditional late-afternoon affair that would have forced folks to skip work to attend the contest.

Get used to crowds like this. They are a direct byproduct of writing off entire seasons in the name of rebuilding. Of bypassing prime free agents in favor of cheaper band-aids the past few winters, snuffing out any possible winter momentum. Of a plan that is now into its fifth year of existence and causing fans of all stripes — whether of sabermetric or more-traditionalist leaning — to impatiently question when we’re going to stop seeing more of the same-old, same-old.

You want more fans? You have to win. Then, they’ll start walking up to the gate as the colder months pass and the warmer weather starts to come. And then, if the team can sustain the on-field success beyond a few weeks in August, that momentum might carry over into the witner and allow you to sell more season tickets.

Then, you might not see record-low crowds showing up for Home Games No. 2, 3, 4…through May.

Maybe. After all, the Indians actually won something that mattered back in 2007, while the Rays have been contending for the playoffs ever since 2008.

Funny thing is, the fans never really came to see it. Or, if they did, it was fleeting. Train a fanbase to think your product isn’t worth watching for too many years in a row and people may not bother to come and see it when it is worth the money again.

Seattle is no less vulnerable to this phenomenon than those other cities, no matter how much wealthier/smarter/sophisticated/whatever some of us may claim to be. No matter how newer or nicer our ballpark is. We are vulnerable to seeing those fans who went away never really come back.

Maybe some will. But not all. Don’t take my word for it. The empty stands are speaking louder than I ever could.

The Mariners still have plenty of time to salvage this season, which has not ended 1 1/2 weeks into a season of 26.

But yeah, there is some urgency required for what’s at stake. Not just on-the-field in 2013. But off the field in the ticket offices prior to 2014. That sales job is now underway and it could be going a whole lot better.

Comments | More in attendance | Topics: justin smoak; dustin ackley; michael saunders; casper wells

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