SBJ/October 1 - 7, 2001/Opinion

Team’s in pennant run, but fans take a walk

What if a team contends for a pennant but nobody is there to see and hear it? Does it still make a noise? In Philadelphia this conundrum is becoming reality as the Phillies found themselves playing meaningful games in September, yet the club is near the bottom of the league in home attendance.

After struggling through the last 14 seasons with only one winning campaign, the hint of a division crown should have served as chum to a ravenous group of fans devouring tickets for the final games.

Instead it has been more like a slight nibble.

The club plays an aggressive style in the mold of its manager, Larry Bowa, one of the franchise's most beloved players. But it draws an average attendance higher than only five other big league teams. In the biggest late-September series in years versus the Braves for control of the division, the Phillies drew an average attendance of only 25,600. This disappointing total included the Sept. 17 game, a patriotic return to normalcy featuring free American flags to all fans.

For a team finding itself on par with the Braves, a stadium nearly two-thirds empty makes little sense.

The manner in which the club alienated its shrinking fan base during the last five years has come back to haunt it.

As the Phillies were consistently fielding an inferior product, team president David Montgomery told fans that the club could not compete financially with the big boys of Major League Baseball. Those who still cared about the team were told that the "small market" Phillies could not pay the same salaries as the teams located in large cities such as Cleveland and St. Louis. Residents of America's fifth-largest city were informed, in so many words, that Broad Street had been transformed to a one-stoplight dirt road littered with tumbleweeds.

Rather than selling the fans on a young nucleus of Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu and Mike Lieberthal, team ownership took an oath of poverty.

If that was not enough for those remaining loyal, Montgomery rewarded the fans with another reason why the Phillies could not win. There was no way the Phillies could compete playing in an outdated facility like Veterans Stadium. The campaign was as a success, and the organization eventually secured public financing for a new baseball-only park.

Now in the waning days of the season, Montgomery and the rest of the Phillies' executives are wondering why fans are not showing up.

The constant complaints from the stadium's residents about how they could not win had an ancillary effect. The public information campaign worked. Phillies fans came to believe it would take a miracle for any team playing in an antiquated, small-market stadium to compete against the rest of the league.

Also hindering the Phillies' fan appeal is the recent success of the city's three other major sports franchises. While the Flyers have been a consistent winning franchise during the past five seasons, the Eagles and Sixers re-energized their fan bases by selling optimism based on the likes of Donovan McNabb and Allen Iverson.

That the three other teams are winning hurts the Phillies since there is only so much support the people can give. There is only so much money they can spend on tickets. There are only so many flags they are willing to fly from their homes and cars.

There is limited availability aboard the Philadelphia sports bandwagon, and the Phillies have been late in offering passes.

The Phillies singing the small-town blues should be an example all team executives can learn from. When you continually cry wolf, there will be consequences.

Just take a look at the Phillies playing in front of a sea of empty blue seats.

Aaron Moore is a Philadelphia-based media writer.

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