Detroit — While a select few baseball teams are prepping for the playoffs, the Detroit Tigers are finishing their worst season — and have recorded their lowest home attendance — since 2003.
Just over 1.5 million paid tickets were sold at Comerica Park in 2019, a 51% drop since the team's record of nearly 3.1 million fans in 2013, the middle of a four-year playoff run.
And far fewer fans have shown up than were reported as paid attendance.
The Tigers on-field struggles have had an impact in and even outside Comerica, where scalpers, vendors and concessionaires have suffered from a lack of turnstile traffic that the team is already trying to turn around for 2020.
“They’re kind of hard to watch,” said Eric Wrozek of Midland, who this week used free tickets from brother Bobby to celebrate the birthday of his nephew, Rylan. “I watch on TV a lot more in recent years, but only about 10 times this year. It used to be every game.”
The Tigers are 4-14 in their last 18 games following their home finale on Thursday, a 10-4 loss to the Central Division-champion Minnesota Twins. They will end the season with the worst record in the majors and one the worst in franchise history. But they won't reach their American League record mark of 119 losses, set in 2003.
That proved to be the low-water point in a 16-year slide since the team had last reached the playoffs. In a remarkable turnaround, the Tigers reached the World Series three years later.
“This team is pathetic — and so was 2003, but 2003 was worse," said Stephen Westgate, who attended a game this week with nephew Scott Smith. "It was a bunch of no-names with no futures. At least we have a future on this team.”
That future, however, doesn't appear to be as close as it was entering 2004. That off-season, the Tigers added future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez and little-known shortstop Carlos Guillen, then signed Magglio Ordonez for 2005, strides that generated fan interest and winning baseball.
If adding big names and fresh faces turned around that woeful team, there's no indication the Tigers are planning a similar commitment in the midst of a tear-down and rebuild — at least not for the 2020 season.
“Al (Avila, general manager) and I have talked a lot about that,” Christopher Ilitch, Tigers controlling owner, said earlier this month. “It’s certainly part of the plan. When Al feels the time is right, he’s going to have the resources to go out and address specific needs.
“It is undoubtedly part of our plan.”
The Tigers declined to disclose actual game attendance, as opposed to paid ticket sales. They also declined to discuss the impact of low attendance on future ticket pricing plans.
With a team payroll estimated to be about half of the $200 million it spent in 2016, it's even possible the Tigers are more profitable today than they were when fans packed the seats in a playoff run.
But a lack of ticket sales has an impact on a team's bottom line.
"Tickets are one of the only things that are 100 percent (profit). It provides teams with an advantage if they can sell tickets," said Darren Rovell, sports business reporter for The Action Network. "Baseball is harder because of the volume of seats in each stadium — more than basketball or hockey arenas — and being asked to sell more seats, for 81 games."
Rovell points to the "baseball socialism" — profit-sharing that includes the TV contracts, merchandising and other revenue — as a great equalizer that relieves some of the negative impact of bad seasons at the box office.
The Tigers tried to jump-start attendance with several fan-focused promotions, including a flash sale from May 31-June 2 that offered tickets at $9 and resulted in more than 36,000 tickets sold. That weekend series against the Atlanta Braves produced two of the top 10 most highly attended games of the season.
Novices and diehards
As the Tigers faded in the standings, many of the casual fans fell by the wayside, leaving the diehards and infrequent attendees.
The Tigers have a league-worst 22-59 record at Comerica Park and they rank 12th in the American League in attendance — ahead of the Royals, Orioles and Rays, in that order — and 25th overall in MLB. The Marlins rank lowest, with average attendance of 10,016.
This week, the concourses weren’t nearly as packed as on a typical night during even a mediocre season. Several concession stands were closed and others had very short wait times to be served.
Food service supervisors said worker hours had been cut, and overtime limited.
“What bums me out is the parking prices — that’s the only thing,” Westgate said. “We were here in 2003 two or three times a month. We lived in the bleachers at Tiger Stadium for $1. I’m a baseball addict."
Westgate, 69, estimates he’s been to about 600 Major League games, including Al Kaline’s final game on Oct. 2, 1974.
“The Tigers are going nowhere; they’re staying in Detroit, so I couldn’t care less how many people show up for a game,” Westgate said. “I get to enjoy the game and I have a good time.”
Fan deals could be even better in 2020, as the Tigers seek to improve their offerings for potential season-ticket holders — dubbed the "Detroit Tigers 1901 Society” — with more incentives.
The new package includes spreading the monthly payment plan from five to 12 months and removing costs for the ticket-exchange program. They're also adding more access to Opening Day tickets, discounts on merchandise and concessions, and a choice between four fan-centered "experiences" with exclusive members-only events.
If the new deals put more fans in the stands, that can only help create a more exciting atmosphere in Comerica Park.
Some of the members of the Tigers Energy Squad, which cheers between innings and conducts giveaways, tries to make every game seem as if it’s a sellout crowd — despite the visual reality.
“Every game is fun,” said Arrias Riggs, a member of the Energy Squad. “It’s harder when there are less fans, but we take it as a challenge.”
The Tigers' first season in Comerica Park was 2000, and 2019 was their second-worst year for attendance: