Mariners Need to Do More to Bring Fans Back to Safeco

This feature  first appeared in the July 2011 issue of The Grand Salami.

By Jon Wells

Despite the arrival of rising stars like Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak and a team that’s hung tough in the AL West, average attendance at Mariner games through the first 2½ months of the 2011 season has been the team’s lowest since 1992, when the M’s averaged just 20,387 fans a game at the Kingdome. Through their first 33 home dates this year, the M’s had drawn a total of 700,042, an average of 21,213 fans per game.

That’s a long way from 2002, when more than 3.5 million fans flocked to Safeco Field to see the Mariners play for the second straight season. The Mariners were number one in attendance in the Major Leagues in both 2001 and 2002, but since then they haven’t been a very exciting team to watch and they’ve finished in the cellar of the AL West five times, with four of their teams failing to win even 70 games.

Just 11,692 people showed up on June 1st to see the M’s take on the Baltimore Orioles. It was not only the smallest crowd in Safeco Field history, but the lowest attendance for a Mariner game since July of 1995. Moreover, the ten smallest  crowds in Safeco Field history have all occurred this year—the average attendance at Ma riner games this year has been 22nd out of the 30 Major League teams.

Mariner fans have proven their loyalty many times over—between 2004 and 2010, a period when the M’s finished in last place 5 out of 7 seasons, attendance at Safeco averaged 2.49 million fans per year. But when the M’s weren’t active on the free agent market last winter despite a 101-loss team in 2010, it impacted the team’s ticket sales, with season ticket numbers falling to pre-1995 numbers—all the way into the 10,000 range. So all the good that was done by the winning teams of the mid-’90s and early ’00s and the building of Safeco Field has now been fully undone by five years of Bill Bavasi and many more of incompetent club president Chuck Armstrong.

The Mariners have been surprisingly competitive so far this year, but at this writing it hasn’t led to more people coming to Safeco, leading several media outlets to ask why the fans haven’t come back yet.
What none of those media outlets has been able to figure out is that the main reason (besides all the years of losing) is that ticket and concession prices at Safeco Field are too high. The Mariners feel they deserve a price increase every time the team finishes over .500, yet they’ve never lowered prices after a 100-loss season. And while several other Major League teams have cut concession prices in recognition of the recession, prices at Safeco seem to increase each and every year, to the point where a 20-ounce microbrew beer now costs $9.75. That’s more than double the price of the same microbrew at bars across the street from the stadium and 4-5 times as much as the cost of buying that beer at your local Safeway.
Worse, in the midst of the team’s downturn in on-field performance, several years ago the Mariners decided to institute a significant surcharge for single game tickets (all tickets not purchased in season ticket packages). The team’s motivation was largely to stem the tide of season ticket cancellations by making those packages seem more economical by comparison. Not only has this pricing scheme not worked—the M’s season ticket numbers have decreased nearly every year since 2002—but it’s caused non-season ticket holders to buy fewer tickets too.

If you go to the box office looking for a box seat (a ticket that cost a season ticket holder $40), that ticket will cost you  $60, a 50% surcharge. Add in the Mariners’ “day of game” surcharge ($5 extra per ticket), their “prime game” surcharge ($5 extra per ticket), and their “summer weekend” surcharge ($2 extra per ticket) and, depending on what game you want to attend, the Mariners might be asking $72 for that same $40 ticket, an 80% increase over the season ticket price!

With those kinds of price disincentives and a team that hasn’t won much over the last ten years, it really shouldn’t be that hard to figure out why attendance keeps declining. One would think the Mariners would understand that the surcharges that are sabotaging their ticket sales are not helping them bring fans back to Safeco, but as has been the case so often in club history, the team doesn’t seem willing to admit when they’ve made a mistake.

We were encouraged this April when the Mariners offered discounted tickets to several games via the discount website Groupon. However, the offer was only good for tickets in luxury suites and the discounted price was $60; so while it was a good deal, it was still out of reach for many fans. And while the offer was a success, according to Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale, there apparently are no plans to extend similar offers for tickets in other areas of the ballpark.

With all the empty seats at Safeco this year, we wondered why the Mariners wouldn’t extend a Groupon offer to different seating areas for some games. While this would bring in additional ticket revenue that would be shared with Groupon, it would also bring in significant concession revenue that wouldn’t have to be shared with anyone. We asked Hale why the team wasn’t offering additional Groupons to try to sell some of the team’s unsold ticket inventory and she wrote back, “The Group On [sic] offer was a success. Since the offer involved multiple games, we don’t have any plans right now to do more Group On offers.” That response was a bit confusing to us. Since the Groupon offers for the suite tickets had already expired, that should not have interfered with the team’s ability to offer another Groupon in other seating areas of the stadium, so we asked Hale to clarify this issue.

She wrote back, “The Group On offer was for multiple games, and it was for suites only. It is certainly possible that we could do other offers that would involve other seating areas. However, as of right now, we don’t have plans to do that. If we decide otherwise, I’ll be happy to let you know.”

With all these ticket surcharges and the team’s refusal to offer other Groupons, it seems to us that the Mariners attitude on ticket sales is “Take it or Leave it.” And many fans have decided to leave it, either staying home and watching the games in High Definition or finding other things to do.

One thing the Mariners could do if they’re still contending in late July is trade  for a hitter, like New York’s Carlos Beltran, to improve their lineup. Such a move would provide more run support for what has been one of baseball’s best pitching staffs this season. A move for an impact bat, even if it adds payroll, would show M’s fans that ownership has learned a thing or two from their mistakes and that they’re finally ready to commit to bringing a championship team to Seattle.

And if the Mariners are in contention, playing meaningful games into August and September, more and more fans will show up. If the M’s reach the playoffs, more people will buy season tickets next winter. Then maybe the team will stop penalizing the budget-minded and casual fans with surcharges designed to squeeze every last penny out of us.

Sounds like a win-win.