Three years after the Tigers’ last trip to October’s playoffs, a team building for the future is dealing with the consequences.
Comerica Park attendance this season will be the lowest since 2005, a year before Detroit made it to the World Series and began a 10-season run that delivered five post-season trips and four years when home crowds smashed the 3 million mark.
TV and radio ratings have slipped, as well, although on a relative level for a team and a town that will finish the year in the top one-third of local TV audiences among 30 big-league teams.
The falloff is tied to Detroit’s 62-89 record, the big leagues’ fourth-worst mark. The Tigers need a 9-2 record in their final 11 games to avoid their most bruising season since 2003 when they were 43-119 and nearly set a big-league record for losses.
Trades designed to make a roster younger while slimming a monstrous $200 million payroll have also had their effects on turnstiles and ratings. Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton — stars who embodied past playoff teams or playoff hopes — were dealt in the past 60 days as the Tigers began to simultaneously tear down an older, high-cost team past its playoff prime and build a fresher future talent base.
“We’re not the first team that’s gone through this, and we probably won’t be the last,” said Al Avila, the Tigers general manager who is supervising the team’s makeover. “But we have to do it, we’re prepared to do it, and I’ve been challenged to start the process.
“We have had an aging, high-payroll team. If we’d stayed status quo, patching up here, getting a free-agent there, making a trade whenever, we’d have continued the way we’ve been the past couple of years. And it would only have gotten worse.
“We really didn’t have a choice.”
The Tigers had six home dates remaining heading into Tuesday’s game against the Athletics at Comerica Park. They were 16th in per-game attendance at 28,930 per game. They were 16th in overall tickets sold at 2,169,717. A year ago, the team was 13th in each category (31,173 and 2,493,859).
In 2008, the Tigers’ high-water mark in their 117 seasons of big-league baseball in Detroit, the team finished eighth among the leagues’ 30 teams: 39,539 per game and 3,202,645 overall. It was a year earlier, in 2007, the Tigers, for the first time, broke the 3 million barrier.
Numbers reflect new realities since the team moved to Comerica Park in 2000. During the nearly 100 years when a ballpark eventually known as Tiger Stadium stood at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, only six times did the Tigers draw as many as 2 million fans: 1968, 1984-85, 1987-88 and 1999. This, despite Tiger Stadium having 10,000 more seats than Comerica Park.
When the baseball team resurrected in 2006, with its first winning season in 13 years, Tigers crowds began to soar. The downtown ballpark became more of a social center as fans were drawn not only to a happier baseball product and atmosphere, but also to a neighborhood weave, which offered restaurants, bars and gathering spots before and after games.
That same appeal might explain why attendance has not slipped, catastrophically, during a bad year of baseball in Detroit. The Tigers have outdrawn all teams in their American League Central Division, including the Indians, who came within an inning of bagging last year’s World Series, and who last week saw a dizzying 22-game winning streak end, are a favorite to win this year’s championship.
Still, there has been a slide at Comerica Park in 2017, most noticeable on weekends when sellout crowds of 40,000 or more often were the summer norm during seasons when the Tigers were playoff-grade. They have had only one sellout in 2017, on Opening Day.
Season tickets are a box-office year’s foundation. And the Tigers are dealing with an erosion of full and partial packages that, when individual purchases total 81 games, are counted as full season-ticket equivalencies.
A source familiar with Tigers ticket numbers, who did not care to be identified, said the team has sold about 15,500 full-season equivalencies in 2017, down from the peak of almost 27,000 season sales in 2008.
The audience that more often opts to watch, or listen to, Tigers games has likewise shrunk. The Tigers are down about 30 percent from 2016, with a current Nielsen rating of 5.04, compared with last year’s season average of 7.01.
At mid-season, Tigers ratings were still hanging in the 7.0 range but began to wilt as their playoff chances dissolved and, not coincidentally, as celebrity players were dealt.
The numbers, at least during the season’s second half, are a significant dip from the past decade when the Tigers were regularly among the top five in all of baseball in local ratings, with their 2013 and 2012 audiences topping all of baseball’s markets with respective ratings of 9.59 and 9.21.
A ratings point is equivalent to 18,500 households.
Greg Hammaren, FSD’s vice president and general manager, acknowledged the late-season drop-off but said Tigers telecasts in 2017 will earn the third-highest revenue in FSD history.
Hammaren said neither do the Nielsen numbers reflect another of 2017’s technological realities: Tigers viewers no longer are watching games exclusively on at-home televisions.
Mobile devices, game consoles, as well as the Fox Sports Go streaming avenue, among other outlets, have changed the viewing landscape.
“Our viewership to Fox Sports Go has doubled each year,” Hammaren said. “Linear (measures) have fallen a bit, and digital has doubled. Nielsen isn’t capturing all the devices or the skinny packages.”
The Tigers’ past local ratings, especially during their years as a top-five player, have stood out, Hammaren said, when Metro Detroit is the country’s 13th-largest market, as measured by TV-industry equations that include population, metropolitan counties, density, etc.
He also acknowledged a transition time for the Tigers would affect FSD in multiple ways, including how games are presented. One wrinkle could be seen last week when Tigers analyst Kirk Gibson detailed, with graphics, how Tigers prospects might line up at positions in years ahead.
“We don’t have our head in the sand,” Hammaren said. “We know the upside to this year’s team is limited. But the point of Al Avila’s trades in the last month have been to re-stock the minor-league system. We’ve been hoping to tell fans this story. And that’s by design.”
The Tigers radio audience is smaller and appears to be a bit more resilient, based on comparative 2016-17 numbers.
Not until September, according to Arbitron ratings obtained, did Tigers broadcasts on 97.1 The Ticket fall dramatically, dropping about 4.5 shares from the normal range near 7.
While numbers were soft in April, Tigers broadcasts were down slightly in May from their high-7 range, then were about even in June before dropping 2.4 shares in July, and a single share in August.
An industry executive familiar with the numbers, who asked for confidentiality, said any one-season drop in a Tigers audience would be regarded as insignificant by advertisers.
A five-year down cycle, the source said, could be problematic. But because baseball radio audiences, particularly in Detroit, are so wedded to their team, there likely would be no fallout from 2017’s modest slip.
The Tigers, the source said, consistently ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in local radio programming in past years and would be expected during a rebuilding cycle to hold their core audience and sponsors.
That audience, flush with fans as well as business partners, was at the heart of a letter written last month to Tigers season-ticket holders. It was signed by Avila and by Duane McLean, the Tigers’ executive vice president of business operations.
“As you know, the franchise is transitioning into a new era, and that transition is well under way,” Avila and McLean wrote, adding that the roster restructuring was taking on more of a “home-grown” direction.
“Going forward, we hope to make good, sound, data-driven decisions,” the letter continued, “to position the ballclub for sustainable success.”
Avila explained last week how investment strategies will change, at least for the short term.
“A lot of money that was being spent at the major-league level is going to be devoted to baseball operations,” he said, speaking of changes that began two years ago and will continue. “Our spending at the scouting and development levels were at the bottom of major-league spending
“We didn’t even have an analytics department,” again referring to Tigers operations when he became GM in August 2015. “We’re continuing to add staff and resources and make that end better.”
The same holds for a Tigers roster headed for reconstruction.
“At some point,” Avila said, “you’ve got to turn it around and start fresh.”