Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Will the fans show up?

The day after the Padres' home opener typically was Tony Gwynn's favorite day of the baseball year, so it was only appropriate that Mr. Padre walked into Petco Park on Wednesday afternoon, smile on face one day after San Diego sold out and won its home opener.

"This is my day, yeah, ha, ha, ha," Gwynn said. "You find out who's who. Sellout crowd yesterday, so we'll find out today who the real fans are."

Any sellout in these fragile economic times should prompt smiles from a baseball club, but with 81 home dates, a major league team leans heavily on the dedicated fans who go to games after the pageantry of Opening Day has come and gone.

The Padres, who announced a paid attendance of 24,368 for Wednesday's game, are trying to rebuild a season ticket base that lost customers in droves not long after the team moved into its downtown ballpark, and even after the National League West-winning years in 2005 and 2006.

As I wrote then about the empty seats, the Padres heard a giant sucking sound while tabulating ticket revenues. The drop in total ticket sales revenue between 2007 and 2009, hastened by on-field dips and the Great Recession's arrival, was more than $30 million.

Whoosh.

Only two Aprils ago, days after Jeff Moorad agreed to buy the Padres from John Moores through a multi-year payment plan, the club's number of "full season equivalents" was down to 8,500, a Petco Park low that represented a stunning 65 percent drop from the 20,000-plus season tickets when the park opened in 2004. The winter of 2008-09 left the Padres with frostbite, numbed by a staggering tide of failed renewals that wiped  6,500 season tickets off the books in four months.

The number has since climbed to nearly 10,700, firmed in part by a 91 percent renewal rate dating to late last summer that was the club's best since the move downtown. And as a percentage of revenue, the season tickets sales are actually a little higher this year because the Padres raised prices on their most expensive seats, offsetting a price cut on cheaper seats.

Some other time, I'll write about Padres president Tom Garfinkel's creative efforts to get more people into seats.

As for fan flavor at Padres games, it felt neutral many times last year even as the team spent 148 days in first place because patrons of teams such as the Cardinals, Dodgers and Phillies cheered so loudly.

For now, the Padres remain indebted to hundreds, sometimes thousands of these fans of other clubs who pay for choice seats in San Diego.

Giants fans took over Petco on Wednesday before the first inning was done, their chants of  Let's Go Giants echoing last September's series here.

Then again, now that San Francisco has a World Series trophy to go with its spectacular ballpark, the Giants have become one of the West's marquee sports franchises, perhaps second to only the Lakers. Heated fan support is raising the black-and-orange balloon higher this year. Abetted by Fortune 500 companies far more numerous than in San Diego, the Giants have sold all of their allotted season tickets -- 27,700 -- and, for the first time since they moved to San Francisco, have a waiting list for season tickets, said club spokesman Jim Moorhead.

An average Giants ticket costs $10 more than an average Padres ticket, says Team Marketing Report, and the average premium ticket in San Francisco, at $78.73, is more than double the $36.01 in San Diego. Yet the Giants will sell some 3.3 million tickets this year. If the Padres can keep life interesting on the field, they might see a rise in attendance of 300,000 or more from last year's 2.1 million.

Play no violins for the Padres. In an industry that generates $9 billion in yearly revenues, the flow of money from major league baseball's bigger revenue pots to 19 Tony Gwynn Drive far exceeds that to the high-revenue clubs.

That's a topic for another day here.

The Padres' challenge of rebuilding their season ticket base to its early Petco levels nonethless appears no less daunting than the fastballs and changeups thrown by Giants ace Tim Lincecum here Wednesday in San Francisco's 8-4 victory. UDPATE: Lincecum struck out 13 against no walks in his seven innings, earning him cheers as loud as any received by a Padre.

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