Monday, February 23, 2009

Can the Royals Draw 2,000,000 Fans?

On the field for the Kansas City Royals, things certainly look promising for 2009. Players like Alex Gordon, Zack Greinke, Billy Butler, Coco Crisp, Gil Meche, Joakim Soria, and Jose Guillen have Kansas City fans excited about the possibility that this team could challenge for its first division crown since 1985.

But away from the baseball field, times are tough due to a financial crisis that has crippled the U.S. economy. It's one of the most difficult economic periods in a generation. The newly-elected government is attempting to figure out how to stimulate the economy, and just today, President Obama promised to cut the U.S. defecit in half by the end of his first term. Any stimulus package isn't going to have a short-term effect, and it could be years before improvements are felt.

In the meantime, businesses continue to close their doors left-and-right, banks are still struggling to stay afloat, the unemployment rate could reach levels that haven't been seen in decades, and families are being forced to cut back on discretionary spending in order to simply pay the monthly bills and avoid foreclosure on their homes.

So, tell me, when the Royals start to win games like we're all hoping they will, are people still going to have the extra money needed to attend a Royals' game? And even if Kansas City remains in contention for the American League Central Division title in August or September, will Kauffman Stadium's seats once again be filled like they were in the glory days of the late 1970's and early 1980's? Those are difficult questions to ponder, with unclear, and potentially scary, answers.

Here are some amazing signs of the times. The other day, I heard one of the hosts on XM Radio's MLB Home Plate mention that there are apparently still tickets remaining for what he said are the first nine games of the season for the New York Yankees.

Normally, this might not seem like such a big deal. But New York, which regularly attracts sellout crowds to its games, is moving into a state-of-the-art, $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium this season. If ever a series of early-season games in the Bronx should be sold out, you'd think this would be it. But, apparently, not in this economy.

During the same conversation, the host suggested that it might not be long before Boston's MLB-record consecutive sellout streak at Fenway Park, which currently stands at 468 games, will come to an end due to the financial strain on U.S. citizens. If you follow the game of Major League Baseball, you know that's an astounding thought, especially for a team with two World Titles in the past five years.

So, when faced with possibilities like that, will a small-market organization like Kansas City be able to actually increase its attendance in the coming years?

A few weeks ago, also on XM, Royals general manager Dayton Moore was asked about attendance figures in relation to Kansas City's ability to increase its payroll. Moore said that, in order for the Royals to be able to increase their payroll to $80-85 million in any season, Kansas City would need between 2 million and 2.4 million fans to pass through the turnstiles at The K.

To put that in perspective, in their 40 years of existence, the Royals have had just 11 seasons in which they've drawn in excess of two million fans. The last time it happened was during the 1991 season, which capped a seven-year streak of two million or more through the gates. The largest total ever is the 2,477,700 who came out to watch the Royals during 1989. But, since 1995, the highest attendance figure for Kansas City is the 1,779,895 fans it drew during the 2003 season.

Last year, Kansas City's total attendance was 1,578,922, for an average of 19,493 per game. In order to reach the 2,000,000 figure, average attendance would have to jump more than 5,000 fans per game, to at least 24,691 per game. Can that honestly happen in this day and age?

According to an annual cost analysis study conducted by Team Marketing Report during April 2008, there were only five teams in Major League Baseball with a more affordable FCI, or Fan Cost Index*, than the Royals.

Yet, the same report said the following: "The Kansas City Royals, a regular at the bottom of the FCI, jumped up a few spots thanks to a 21.1 percent increase on tickets, going from $14.48 to $17.54. The Royals' FCI concurrently went up 22.5 percent to $151.16."

*The Fan Cost Index comprises the prices of two (2) adult average-price tickets, two (2) child average-price tickets, two (2) small draft beers, four (4) small soft drinks, four (4) regular-size hot dogs, parking for one (1) car, two (2) game programs, and two (2) least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps.

So, it's true that the Royals remain a bargain in terms of the cost for a family to attend a game, and the thing about that report is that it didn't factor in such savings as Dodge Buck Night, and all-you-can-eat seats, or other promotions that Kansas City runs on a regular basis in order to increase attendance. But the fact of the matter is, with another hike in ticket prices set for 2009, can the average family really afford to attend more than a handful of games?

It's not fun to think what could happen to organizations like the Royals, or other teams located in smaller markets, if the economy continues on its downward spiral.

It's not a stretch of the imagination to think that more than one team could run into such financial difficulties that it is forced to shut down, or relocate. And it's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that teams like Kansas City might have to drastically cut their payrolls, and return to a strict reliance on players who come up through their farm systems.

Many MLB teams have already taken steps to reduce payroll for 2009. In fact, Kansas City is one of a very select number of organizations who have actually increased payroll this season. The Royals are set to pay a team-record total of around $74 million to their players this season, which is a reported $4 million over the team's budget. In order to offset that cost, I'm guessing the front office is factoring in an attendance increase.

Optimism surrounding this year's team is at its highest point in recent memory, and these Royals should win lots of games. But the big question is whether Kansas City can once again reach that elusive total of 2 million fans.

I guess we won't know the answer to that question until it happens, but it sure would be nice to read about the two millionth fan passing through the turnstiles at Kauffman Stadium this season.

Kauffman Stadium Photo Credit:

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