Blue Jays: The attendance took an understandable downward turn in 2018

After leading the American League in home attendance despite struggling through the 2017 season, the Blue Jays saw some pretty empty nights at the Rogers Centre this year.

When the Blue Jays made their triumphant return to the playoffs in 2015 after a more than two decade long drought, the fans rewarded their team by coming out in droves, and boasting some of the best viewership numbers in baseball.

That’s what happens when you build a winner, and after many years of being in the middle of the pack in the American League, the Blue Jays finally toppled the mighty New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox (and the Rays and Orioles for that matter), and brought a life to the Rogers Centre that we hadn’t witnessed since the early 90’s.

They saw the home attendance numbers go up by more than 400,000, and their rank rise from 7th in the American League up to fourth. By the time 2016 rolled around and the team continued to be a playoff contender (and eventual Wild Card qualifier), the Jays lead the AL with just shy of 3.4 million in attendance, and averaging 41, 878 excited fans in the stands.

Those good feelings and belief in the team spilled over into 2017, and despite the fact that the team never really got themselves in to the playoff race, they again lead the AL with more than 3.2 million in attendance, and just shy of 40,000 a game.

That fan support is one of the reasons that Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro cited in not starting the rebuild after last season. Last winter they said they felt they owed it to the fans to try and put a competitive product on the field this year, and were hoping that 2017 was an outlier for the veteran roster. With the benefit of hindsight we know that wasn’t the case, and now the rebuild has started a year later.

The whole scenario hasn’t been pretty, but rebuilds rarely are. We’ve watched beloved stars like Jose Bautista leave after last season, and others like Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna and more traded before the deadline this year. To cap it all off, the team announced on Wednesday that John Gibbons will not be returning as the manager next year, and the reigns will be passed on to the next man up for the job.

It’s the end of an exciting era of Blue Jays baseball, and a year of disappointment for the fans. That’s also been reflected in the attendance numbers, which should come as a surprise to no one given the way this season has gone. Now that the home schedule has wrapped up, the final figures come in at 2,385,281 million through the gates, averaging 28,707 per game. Surprisingly, it was still good for fifth in the American League, even with the significant drop.

We should expect a fairly reduced payroll next season, but it’s not really the result of the attendance, but more what happens when you go through a rebuild with a younger roster. Those rookies or pre-arbitration eligible players come at a very cheap price in the early part of their careers. For example, instead of paying Donaldson 23 million to pay third base, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will make the rookie minimum when he eventually gets the position.

Similarly, Happ and Marco Estrada‘s combined 27 million on Opening Day could very well turn into barely more than one million between a combination of Ryan Borucki/Sean Reid-Foley/Thomas Pannone. While it feels inexcusable to let a pocket-deep ownership like Rogers off the hook on spending next year, it is the right way to execute a rebuild. The kids need to play, and fortunately for ownership that also translates into some significant savings, with nearly 50 million coming in just the moves I’ve mentioned so far.

It likely won’t translate into butts in the seats though, at least not right away. There’s a good chance we’ll see a short spike when Vlad Jr. gets promoted, but unless the team is winning it likely won’t last that long. The key to bringing the fans out is putting a competitive product on the field, and while it’s not impossible for a young group to surprise us next year, it’s far more likely they’ll make a harder push in 2020 and 2021.

Until the time when they are moving up in the standings again, I would expect we’ll see a drop in attendance numbers in Toronto. Hopefully the stadium won’t be as barren as it’s been throughout the final month of this season (they had four games with less than 20,000 fans in the bleachers), but even in a best case scenario I don’t think ownership should expect another top five attendance finish in the AL.

With other potential contenders in the city like the NHL’s Maple Leafs, or the NBA’s Raptors, the fans in Toronto will need to see a winning product before the interest (beyond the die-hards like you and I, of course) will fully return. I don’t think we’re in for another two-decade long drought, and the interest is fresh enough that the fans will return if and when the Blue Jays show they’re for real again. Such is the ebb and flow of building a contender.