April 19, 2014 at 2:13 am

Lynn Henning

Schedule could prevent Tigers from attracting 3 million fans

After this full house on Opening Day, Comerica Park's turnstiles have been a bit bogged down by an April schedule loaded with 16 home games and temperatures in the 30s and 40s. (David Coates / Detroit News)

Detroit ó Baseballís schedule-maker apparently has issues with the 2014 Tigers.

They are tucked in the middle of a 10-game home stretch that is not quite in the box officeís interests. And thatís not only because the Tigers have slipped into second place following Friday nightís 11-6 pummeling by the Angels, a team the Tigers havenít beaten since 2012 even when everyone else in baseball finds it slightly less than invincible.

Drawing crowds in April is a miserable task for any cold-weather club. The Tigers have protected themselves against light turnouts by selling 20,000-25,000 season tickets for 2014. This keeps their base attendance sturdy and at least gives them a shot at the lofty 3-million mark based on expectations that sellout crowds will soon arrive in tandem with warmer weather.

Turnstiles, though, have been bogged down by an April schedule loaded with 16 home games and temperatures in the 30s and 40s. The crowd was better Friday, with 28,435 showing up on a night it was a civilized 55 degrees at game time. This was also on an evening the Red Wings were preparing to play what became an epic opening-series playoff thriller at Boston, winning 1-0, and sending Comericaís crowd into a mighty shriek when Pavel Datsyukís goal was replayed on the video screen.

But between weather and Stanley Cup diversions it was was no slam-dunk that a crowd even as heavy as Fridayís would have made its way to Comerica. In fact, April dates cost the team anywhere from 10,000-20,000 customers per game compared with what a contending team in Detroit draws between Memorial Day and the pennant raceís final curtain.

The double whammy, potentially, for the Tigers is a September schedule also loaded with 16 home games. If the Tigers are in a tight race that stretches into the regular seasonís final weekend, their 2014 attendance should be fine because of crowds that donít let up as long as the weather is half decent and games are meaningful.

But there is little cushion in hitting that 3-million mark. And while falling shy of 3 million doesnít call for a Washington bailout, there is a new gold standard at Comerica Park, created by a club that has drawn 3 million four times in its 113-year history. All four seasons have arrived since 2007.

Itís a screwy bit of matchmaking, for sure, having 32 of your 81 home games scheduled during April and September, with the remaining 49 spread among four prime-time months: May, June, July, and August.

Fans always wonder why the schedule doesnít allow cold-weather teams to open the season at warm-weather sites. It sounds wonderful. But itís unworkable and, more to the point, unfair.

Trying to sort out schedules in which average temperatures and 30 teams playing 162-game calendars can be reasonably balanced is a task neither practical nor fair to all parties.

Warm-weather towns as well as Frost Belt teams deal with a difficult business issue early and late in the season: school nights. Crowds are down when school is in session and thatís as true in Phoenix as it is in Detroit. The Diamondbacks, to name one team, have their own attendance issues and arenít interested in doing the Tigers or any northern team any favors.

Another consideration is how a schedule that puts Sun Belt teams at home early in the season and on the road late would be viewed in terms of equality to playoff contenders. If youíre a game down in the division race with seven games to play, all on the road, how is a team expected to react to those early April games you hosted for the climatic benefit of a team from Chicago?

The Tigers are left in 2014 to deal with the same luck-of-the-draw scheduling that governs 30 teams and invariably treats some clubs better than others, depending upon the year.

Itís an amazing trend the Tigers have begun with these 3-million customer seasons that have suddenly become vogue. During all their years at Tiger Stadium they never came close to 3 million. And this was at a ballpark in which there were 10,000 more seats than at Comerica Park.

But with a new stadium built in the heart of downtown amid restaurants and bars and ambience not achievable at Tiger Stadium, a night at the ballpark steadily became more of a destination event.

The Tigers have helped themselves by understanding the customer in ways they never imagined during the Tiger Stadium era. You see it at the concession stands (sushi?). You see it at the hangout on the Pepsi Porch, the New Amsterdam 416 lounge area, where they have a fireplace bar and plush furniture for people who maybe arenít as interested in the particulars of an at-bat as they are in having a good time.

But underpinning all of this, beyond a team people want to see play, is a schedule that this year isnít doing the Tigers any favors. If they make 3 million in 2014, this is going to be a pennant race even more dramatic than anything now envisioned by what today is a second-place Tigers team enduring another chilly April at Comerica Park.


More Lynn Henning