Attendance woes point to Mariners losing grip on their fans

May 1, 2013 

The words “smallest crowd in Safeco Field history” shouldn’t faze me anymore. It’s one of those phrases involving the Mariners that are Muzak to the ears, as familiar as manager Eric Wedge’s laments about runners stranded in scoring position and the tightness in Franklin Gutierrez’s hamstrings.

On April 9, when an audience announced at 10,745 showed up to watch the Mariners play the Astros, it was described as the smallest crowd in Safeco Field history. The record was broken the following night, when the attendance was listed at 10,493.

This past Monday represented a milestone in the Mariners’ box-office decline: Not only was the attendance of 9,818 the smallest crowd in Safeco Field history, but it also marked the first time fewer than 10,000 tickets were sold for a Seattle home game since June 26, 1995 – a few months before Kingdome fans caught pennant fever.

Back in those days, small crowds were worrisome, seen by skeptics as evidence of Seattle’s challenge to become an entrenched big league baseball market. Were the Mariners on their way out of town? If they left for, say, Tampa Bay, would anybody care but the usual coterie of Kingdome die-hards?

Such doom-and-gloom scenarios were erased by the wondrous playoff run in ’95, which provided momentum for the construction of the jewel we know as Safeco Field. When the Mariners fail to draw more than 10,000 to a weeknight April game in 2013, the justification list is long.

It’s cold. The kids can’t stay up late because they’ve got to go to school in the morning. Prices for prime seat locations are steep, and good luck on parking the car and making a few trips to the concession stand without spending $100.

Then there’s the product on the field. On those four out of five home dates Felix Hernandez isn’t the starting pitcher, the Mariners don’t offer a single compelling presence in the lineup, which is OK if the team of young projects and castaway veterans jells as fluidly as, for instance, the Giants have. But while San Francisco was winning two world championships in the three years between 2010 and 2012, Seattle was averaging 94 defeats a season.

I understand the grousing about the cold weather, the long games on school nights, the cost of tickets and parking and concession items, and how the accumulated frustration of no playoff berths since 2001 has created apathy.

I get it.

Yet those five words – “smallest crowd in Safeco Field history” – still sting me, and they probably sting anybody else who has long boasted about baseball’s grip on fans throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Mariners used to own this sports market, and now they don’t, and the fall from grace is troubling.

April loomed as a breakout month for the Mariners, who broke spring training camp with the look of a team primed to surprise. Opening night was a treat at Safeco Field, where fans were invited to watch the game from Oakland on the new video board. Seats were free, concession prices were eased, and the sheer enthusiasm amid the crowd of more than 15,000 seemed to validate Seattle’s status as a baseball-crazy hub.

And what was the prevailing conversation topic on the sports-radio shows the next day? The Seahawks, and their assembling of a roster full of players who won’t participate in a meaningful game until September. When Seahawks talk was put on hold for a minute here and a minute there, the conversation turned toward Chris Hansen’s valiant attempt to relocate a basketball team – a lousy, consistently uninteresting basketball team – to Seattle.

The season was a day old, King Felix was 1-0, and the buzz on the air should have dwelled on baseball.

There was a buzz about the Mariners. It sounded like the buzz of crickets under the moonlight.

Safeco Field attendance will improve as the three sisters of spring assert themselves. April, that cruel witch, already has ceded authority to May, who can be lovely and has her moments, but she is not as reliable as June.

Families will gather in the upper deck, and singles will mingle on the patios behind the outfield fences, and before too long, the small weeknight crowds on hand to watch the Astros and Orioles will turn into larger crowds watching the Red Sox and Yankees and Cubs.

But I’m concerned about the public’s ambivalence about the Mariners. A few weeks ago, as I was leaving a sports bar in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, a waitress asked the patrons near me for permission to turn the channel on the TV.

Sure, whatever.

The channel was changed to an NBA playoff game between, uh, some team and some other team. (Everybody in the NBA qualifies for the playoffs, except the Sacramento Kings.)

I recall the incident because the game that was turned off found the Mariners at Texas. There were 10 or 12 TV sets in the place, and this was the only one showing a Seattle team in action.

The Mariners and Rangers were replaced by a pair of basketball teams from two or three time zones away, and nobody in the Belltown sports bar said a word.

It’s likely we won’t reread the words “smallest crowd in Safeco Field history” any time soon. Thank you May, and you too, June.

But the irrelevance of the Mariners won’t be solved by warmer weather. The irrelevance of the Mariners can only be solved by the Mariners.


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