It was a classic night for baseball. The lid on Toronto’s SkyDome was open, the setting sun cast an ochre glow and the gentle breezes of a balmy mid-July evening stirred the World Series banners hanging in the outfield. Yet by the time the Blue Jays had secured a convincing victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the night’s attendance was announced at a paltry 18,751. Empty seats abounded in the house that once reverberated to the cheers of 52,000 fans. It was a striking contrast to the days of the Jays’ pennant drives, culminating in World Series victories in 1992 and 1993.
The Jays and big-league baseball are not the only ones that have struggled to attract fans and revenue. Canada has lost NHL teams in Winnipeg and Quebec City, the Ottawa Senators are struggling and baseball’s Expos are in a fight to survive in Montreal. In the United States, some pro basketball franchises are confounded by a tepid response. “The empty seat has become a symbol for the season,” the Wall Street Journal proclaimed in an article last April about the woes of the Miami Heat of the National Basketball Association. Although the team was heading for a playoff battle, attendance was so soft that the team had seven times closed off 3,200 seats in the 19,600-seat American Airlines Arena. And even though the town’s NHL team, the Florida Panthers, also made it to the playoffs, attendance was sparse.
What is it these days about pro sport? There are a variety of factors. League expansions have broken up old loyalties between stars and fans. Soaring ticket prices have put games out of reach for average families. Those costs have been driven by multi-million-dollar salaries for athletes who have turned themselves into mini-corporations, shuffling from one city to the next in search of the top dollar. Free agency has liberated once-indentured athletes, but it has destroyed the old tradition of building the local franchise around career players. To thrive in today’s environment, the front office needs to count on something beyond gate receipts and popcorn sales.
One typical solution is when the team owner also operates broadcasting outlets and uses the games as content on television or radio. That is the case in scores of cities around the world: Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves are a regular feature on his TBS Superstation, the Chicago Tribunes Cubs play on station WGN and in France, three soccer clubs are now in the hands of media companies. Such synergy is behind the expected purchase of the Jays by Ted Rogers, whose multimedia empire includes 2.2 million cable households, Toronto television station CFMT, a 30-per-cent interest in the cable channel Sportsnet, 30 radio stations—and Maclean's.
Naturally, nothing overcomes fan apathy so much as a winner. But that is expensive. Last year, the World Series winning New York Yankees had a payroll of $88 million (U.S.), compared with $16.3 million for the Expos. When the Jays won their last Series in 1993, the payroll was $51 million. This year, it is $46.3 million for a team that is struggling to stay in contention. In the big leagues, money talks. Robert Lewis—email@example.com to comment on From the Editor
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