SBJ/20080519/This Week's News

New faces at MLB hear good news, bad news

Major League Baseball continues to project a fifth straight attendance record, with the year-end numbers likely to exceed 81 million based on advance sales, but at roughly the season’s quarter-turn, there are some newly troubling signs, as well.

The league’s overall average of 30,230 fans per game as of last week is flat from last year, with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig largely blaming what he called “horrendous weather,” particularly in the Midwest.

More glaring, though, is that eight teams are behind their respective 2007 attendance paces by double-digit percentages. That compares with the marks at season’s end last year, when no team dropped by more than 9 percent at the gate compared with the prior year. Only seven teams overall had any sort of decline last year, compared with 16 thus far in 2008.

The eight teams with double-digit declines so far this season are Florida, Houston, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Texas and the Chicago White Sox.

“It’s really all been sort of blah,” said Oakland A’s owner Lewis Wolff.

The A’s have spent much of the season atop the AL West. Still, the club’s average attendance through May 14 of 19,955, which includes two highly attended games in Tokyo to start the season, is down 13.6 percent from the same point last year. The average falls to 17,352 without the two games in Japan.

“The turnout certainly has been disappointing,” Wolff said, “and on some levels, you could say the economy has finally become something of a factor.”

Other factors are at play elsewhere.

The A’s and Giants are winning games
at home, but attendance is down at
least 13 percent for both ballclubs.

The Giants, no longer having the All-Star Game or Barry Bonds’ home run chase as sales lures, are down 13 percent and may fail to reach 3 million in attendance for the first time in the eight-year history of AT&T Park. The Pirates, despite a top-to-bottom executive housecleaning, not surprisingly are struggling under the weight of 15 consecutive losing seasons and are down 15 percent. The Mariners also have stumbled on the field, and a schedule club officials deemed to be not as favorable as last year’s schedule brought to town the similarly struggling Rangers for midweek games earlier this month. The result: some of the smallest crowds in Safeco Field history.

“We’re obviously down, but there’s still a lot to feel good about,” said Larry Baer, Giants executive vice president and COO. “We’ve never had a crowd less than 30,000 in our park. We haven’t had the need to sell partial-season tickets; we’re still full-season only. But there’s a certain gravity to the situation. … We’re obviously in transition to a different model.”

The coming weeks will be significant influencers on the final attendance numbers as the always-popular interleague play becomes a prominent part of the schedule and the warmer weather brings not only increased individual sales but also the bulk of increasingly critical group sales.

“I don’t start worrying about [attendance] until August,” said Pirates Chairman Bob Nutting.

Petitti meets with owners: Tony Petitti, the outgoing CBS Sports executive who was recently hired to run the forthcoming MLB Network, made his first appearance at an owners meeting. He conducted a presentation on the emerging plans for the network, which is set to launch this winter.

Petitti, who doesn’t officially start on the job until June, said he plans to aggressively build a staff in short order once he finishes at CBS. The full MLB Network staff will number about 150 people at the outset, though it will likely take some months to get up to that level.

“There’s been quite a lot of interest out there [in working for the network], and we’re going to be ramping up quickly,” Petitti said.

Proceeding on a slower course, meanwhile, is the still-not-formally announced plan to build the network’s long-term home in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood in partnership with Vornado Realty Trust. Originally targeted for a mid-April announcement to coincide with Jackie Robinson Day, the project has been delayed by ongoing efforts to tie up the financing amid the still-deepening global credit crunch.

“We’re not looking to take on very much debt, but these days, even a little debt is really hard to put together,” said A’s owner Wolff, a network board member. “But we hope to have a more direct line on this effort in the next couple of months.”

Petroskey settles in: Dale Petroskey, former president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, represented the Rangers at the meeting in his new role as the club’s executive vice president of marketing and community development.

Petroskey, who left the hall in late March under rather dark circumstances in what the museum board tersely termed a “failure to exercise proper fiduciary responsibility,” declined to discuss his final days in Cooperstown.

“I’m now looking forward, but I have a lot of admiration and respect for what the hall has accomplished and is certain to accomplish in the future,” Petroskey said. “They made an excellent choice in [new President Jeff Idelson].”

Petroskey has quickly taken on the daunting task of improving the Rangers’ attendance base, which has stagnated in recent years and is down 29 percent this year, in part due to team President Nolan Ryan’s new policy of no longer counting comp tickets.

“Certainly there are some things I can try to bring to bear after observing many of the clubs in my travels,” Petroskey said. “We’ll look to be very aggressive.”

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