Citi Field Attendance Falls as Mets Fall in Standings

Did you know the Mets are the third biggest road draw in baseball this season? At Citi Field, however, a ballpark that is in just its third season, only 67.7 percent of the tickets are sold on average for each game, 11th best in MLB.

In 2009, its debut season, Citi Field was a shiny new toy every New Yorker wanted to play with. Kids get bored with toys, though, and the same thing happened at Citi—last year brought a 15 percent drop in attendance and the downward trend continues this season.

There are many reasons for the decline but the economy and the team’s on-field success are the two biggest. I have a better idea of what the future holds for the Mets than I do for the economy, but it’s still just a guess. Independent of those two factors, though, the franchise is working to draw fans to Citi Field and make the experience positive—after all, even those within the organization don’t have full control over the economy and the standings.

As the Mets return to Queens tonight for a six-game homestand, there are certainly things the organization could improve upon.

The Team, The Team, The Team

More than anything, New Yorkers want to support a winner. If the Mets, who lost in excruciating fashion last night to fall one game below .500, can become a legitimate playoff contender, as they were in the last few years of Shea Stadium, fans will flock to the ballpark.

Ownership let fans know that the last few years were unacceptable when it fired manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya after last season. Terry Collins and Sandy Alderson have brought a measure of respect and accountability to the organization, though Mets fans are too smart to celebrate a regime that simply talks about “doing things the right way.”

A promising sign is how the Mets approached last week’s draft. Alderson said the Mets were prepared to spend over slot, meaning they’d sign players for more than the MLB-recommended amount. We won’t know for a couple of months if they followed through, but it would be a welcome change from the organization’s draft stinginess. In the past five drafts combined, the Mets have spent less than all but one team, according to Baseball America. Giving a couple of million bucks to Gary Matthews, Jr. but not to a potential future starting pitcher doesn’t make much sense.

Another area that could use improvement is player injuries. Owner Fred Wilpon said the Mets were “snakebitten,” and he was presumably thinking about the rash of injuries over the past few seasons. Yes, many of the injuries—especially to so many key players—can simply be attributed to bad luck. But I don’t see how the same trainers and the same doctors are still associated with the organization.

If the Mets medical staff can’t do a better job of preventing and/or rehabbing injuries, the organization could at least improve its communication to the media and public.* I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that a player will miss just one game, then two, then three, before finally being placed on the disabled list. Then, a day or two before his scheduled return, we learn about a setback. Hopefully the medical team can do a better job of diagnosing injuries, but the Mets can certainly do a better job of keeping their fans in the loop.

*Last year I saw a “Mets Organizational Decision-Making Flow Chart” on the internet. It was meant to be a joke, but it wasn’t far from the truth, as all injuries, minor or severe, eventually led to a stint on the DL, a setback, and eventually, a PR disaster.

One thing the Mets certainly have going for them is homegrown talent. Nobody in baseball is playing better than Jose Reyes right now; David Wright is hurt but one of the best third baseman in the game; younger guys like Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, and Jonathon Niese have shown great potential.

The most important of these players is Reyes, a free agent after this season. It has gotten to the point where, beyond any ludicrous contract demands, the Mets must re-sign Reyes. For many fans, Reyes is the only reason they keep watching the team. Trading him would be a crippling mistake, and Mets fans can only hope Alderson has the foresight—and funds—to make the right decision.

Moneyball

The Mets lowered ticket prices by an average of 14 percent for this season. Single-game tickets are as cheap as $12 for certain games and can be purchased on StubHub, a Mets partner, for even less.

“We’ve had very aggressive ticket price reductions the last few years to help with the economic impact of the recession,” said Mets Vice President of Baseball Operations Dave Howard.

Field level seats are still more expensive than most would pay for a baseball game, something that happens 81 times a year, and 162 if you count the Yankees’ home games as well. In other words, nearly every night from April-September, a baseball fan in New York can see a game.

“Our competition in New York for the entrainment dollar is not just the Yankees,” Howard said. “You have to look at everything people can do from an entertainment standpoint because that segment of their income is finite and they have many options. We feel it runs everything from movies to Broadway to bowling and all the sports teams. We need to be compelling and be an event that people want to come to and have a high degree of confidence that they will have a great experience.”

Citi Field had a lot more fans for its first game. (Credit: Metsfan84)

The Mets are certainly a cheaper—if less successful—alternative to the Yankees, as well as most Broadways shows. But despite the Mets’ lower prices, a ballgame for a family is still expensive. Even with $12 tickets, one must consider parking, food, and drinks, a total sum generally over $100. The Mets have nothing comparable to the following package available for Colorado Rockies games: four tickets, parking, four food and drink vouchers, and a program for $59. It’s a different market in New York, sure, but that doesn’t mean families should be priced out.

“We don’t prohibit people from bringing in sandwiches and bottles of water into the stadium if they’d like to save some money,” Howard said. “We’ve always attracted families and we want to provide a good value for their money.”

The Mets certainly provide good value to those fans willing to make a more hefty investment and become season ticket holders. From offseason receptions with the players to opportunities to do everything from taking batting practice at Citi Field to singing the national anthem before a game, season ticket holders are certainly treated well. I’ve joked that if attendance continues to decline they’ll let a lucky season ticket holder throw out the actual first pitch of every game.

The New World Class Home of Amazin’

Empty seats and a disappointing team don’t change the fact that Citi Field is a beautiful ballpark. I’m the biggest Shea apologist you’ll find, but that’s mostly because of the memories I have there. Once the Mets start winning at Citi, I’m sure I’ll come to love it as well, as it certainly has more to offer than Shea.

“We operate Citi Field with an emphasis on treating people with respect in a friendly and safe environment,” Howard said. “Certainly we want the team to win, but we are most encouraged when we receive testimonials from people who have had a great time and they are raving about the staff.”

Fans who show up early for a game can take cuts in a batting cage just outside the stadium, snap photos in front of the old apple from Shea, or visit the Mets museum. Once inside the park, the most popular destination is beyond center field, where Shake Shack, a dunk tank, a tee-ball field, and other food and entertainment options are located. Unlike at Shea, fans can walk around the stadium’s field level and still stay engaged in the game, as the concourse is open air and provides sight lines to the field.*

*The ONLY downside to the open air architecture is that you lose that “wow” moment you had at Shea, that moment when you walked through the narrow passageway from the concessions area to your seat, when suddenly all you saw was an explosion of green. I spoke about this with Mr. Howard and have discussed it with other fans as well. That moment is the most vivid memory many fans have of stadiums like Shea (and the old Yankee Stadium), and you lose that at Citi. Of course the trade-off—being able to see the field when you visit the concessions—is certainly worth it.

When Citi opened, Wilpon drew criticism for the fact that the Jackie Robinson rotunda was too Dodgers-centric and the stadium as a whole didn’t pay much homage to, you know, the team that actually plays there. Wilpon has since admitted that was a mistake, and has worked to correct it by adding the museum, banners of Mets players, and naming the walkway beyond the outfield wall the Shea Bridge.

It’s hard to find something to complain about, other than, of course, the team itself.

And that is why Citi Field can sometimes feel like a “grave yard” according to Mets starter Mike Pelfrey, who made his debut in 2006. “You can feel when there’s an excitement and an energy in the crowd and when there’s not,” Pelfrey said after a home game earlier this season in which the announced attendance was 30,000 but the actual count was probably 10,000 less. “You definitely notice it if it’s down and as a player you don’t welcome that. You want the sold out crowd. You want it to be jam packed because it makes the game even more fun.”

Pelfrey added that even 20,000 New Yorkers can make their presence known because of the city’s passion for sports. “But it’s not the same as if there were 45,000,” he said.

This problem has a lot more to do with the first two items—the team’s performance and the economy—than Citi Field itself. I have little doubt that if the Mets find themselves in a pennant race Citi could shake like Shea once did (figuratively, if not literally).

An abridged version of this article appeared in the June 8, 2011 issue of amNewYork, a daily newspaper distributed in New York City.

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