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Hot ticket no more: Lost season has Blue Jays attendance slipping to historic lows

Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez pitches against the Yankees during first inning MLB action at Yankee Stadium in New York City on Monday, June 24, 2019.
Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez pitches against the Yankees during first inning MLB action at Yankee Stadium in New York City on Monday, June 24, 2019. - Michael Owens

NEW YORK — It has come to this in an attempt to fill empty seats at Canada’s only home to Major League Baseball: vending dollar hot dogs once a month and deeply discounting tickets for a summer holiday game that was once an automatic sellout.

Yes, as Canada Day weekend approaches, the Blue Jays are midway through one of the worst attended seasons in franchise history, with their struggles at the gate mirroring those on the field.

Through the 38 home dates thus far, a disheartening run of baseball in which they’ve struggled to a 13-25 mark on their own turf, the Jays are averaging a mere 20,420 per game.

That’s already the third worst in Rogers Centre history, but well within range of eclipsing the low-water mark of 19,173 set in 2010.

Perhaps more stark, the current average is less than half the 41,878 that filled the aging dome as recently as 2015, the first of back-to-back seasons in which the Jays led the American League in attendance.

“I think it’s understandable,” Andrew Miller, the Jays vice president of business operations said in an interview on Wednesday. “There are different dynamics in terms of team performance.

“From a business perspective, we try to understand the fans. We don’t get focused on (team performance.) It’s more on (finding a way of) impacting fans in a positive manner and looking for ways for the fan base to be excited about the environment.”

Tough to do when the place is less than half full, of course, but at least the Jays have been innovative this year in attempting to stem the erosion and counter an on-field product that has purged much of its star power from those recent glory days.

Cheap beer at limited stands in the stadium, loonie hot dogs and various bundling strategies are just some of the measures Miller says the team is attempting to win back and keep fans flocking to the bottom of Blue Jays Way. The team currently sits eighth among 15 American League teams in average attendance, down from fifth in last year’s disappointing season, where 28,705 was the announced average.

The issue now is how low can the crowds go this season?

The Jays reached the 81-game midway point of their season Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, more than 20 games behind the AL East-leading Bronx Bombers. So no, there won’t be a sniff of meaningful baseball played for the remainder of June, July, August and September.

“We actually think there is a lot of reason to be positive on the field and off the field,” Miller said, of the kids are all right pitch the team is left to sell. “There’s a young core of players on the field. It’s exciting every night to see them make strides. We can envision where we are going to be as things solidify.”

Still, that doesn’t mean the challenges aren’t extremely steep in the present.

For Monday’s Canada Day fixture, a festive, must-attend event for so many years, it’s alarming to look at a stadium map and see the available seats. Several sections at multiple levels are virtually empty, a sales job complicated by the fact it’s the Royals in town, one of just two teams in all of MLB with a worse winning percentage than the Jays.

The Canada Day game was originally designated as a premium-priced contest, one in which .500 level tickets were attempted to be pawned at $33 plus service charges.

This week, the team announced a 36-hour flash sale in which those same tickets can be had for a “mere” $15.20 (fees included) a clever marketing ploy in honour of Canada’s 152nd birthday.

The decline this season is no surprise, Miller acknowledged. As things were imploding on the field last season, the first big hint came during the months when season-ticket renewals were dispatched.

Selling a rebuild is never an easy proposition — witness the empty seats in Baltimore and other venues. But the atmosphere has certainly been in sharp contrast to the energetic and well-populated stadiums the Jays have played in during a six-game run through Boston and the Bronx the past six days.

“There are a number of factors at play for us trying to understand the different dynamics,” Miller said of the team’s efforts to make the fan experience a better one. “Attendance is down some but we are using it as an opportunity to test different things, different ticket bundles (and promotions).”

The Jays are certainly aware of the immense potential they share with their Toronto sporting brethren, the NBA champion Raptors. In 2015 and 2016, the baseball team enjoyed the type of coast-to-coast love the Raptors basked in this spring.

“We have a unique opportunity as the only team in Major League Baseball that represents an entire country,” Miller said. “We’ve seen it first hand, whether it was the playoff runs in 2015 and 2016 or going to Seattle (where Jays fans take over the stadium). Our fans are loyal and there’s strong interest across the country.

“That’s really special and we take that as an opportunity. Our fans are among the most passionate in all of baseball.”

As we’ve seen in a mostly lifeless Rogers Centre in a mostly lackluster season thus far, they’re far more passionate when their beloved team is competitive.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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