Blue Jays: How will ownership respond to the declining attendance?

TORONTO, CANADA - NOVEMBER 2: Mark Shapiro speaks to the media as he is introduced as president of the Toronto Blue Jays during a press conference on November 2, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - NOVEMBER 2: Mark Shapiro speaks to the media as he is introduced as president of the Toronto Blue Jays during a press conference on November 2, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

To virtually no one’s surprise, the attendance numbers were way down for the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre this year. How will ownership respond?

One of the more popular baseball phrases from my childhood was, “If you build it, they will come”, from one of the greatest movies of all time, Field of Dreams. Of course, they were talking about ghosts coming back to a baseball field that Kevin Costner was building on his farm, but this advice can be applied to baseball in other ways.

For example, you don’t have to look much further than the Blue Jays’ attendance numbers this year to understand the value of winning in Toronto. After leading the American League in total attendance in both 2016 and 2017, the Rogers Centre took a dip in their numbers last season going from 3.2 million fans through the gates in 2017 down to a little more than 2.3 million last year.

Fast forward to the final numbers from the 2019 campaign and the situation has become even more bleak. In fact, the Blue Jays represent the largest attendance numbers drop in baseball for the second straight year, and saw just 1.75 million fans at the ballpark this season. Since the front office scaled back the payroll to next to nothing, ownership may have made up most or all of the difference there, but it’s still not a great sign.

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However, when you look at the recent success of the Toronto Raptors of the NBA and the Leafs of the NHL, and combine it with the last few seasons of futility for the Blue Jays, it’s not that hard to understand why fans aren’t spending as many of their hard earned dollars on the baseball product in town these days. That also begs the question: What is ownership going to do about it?

There are a few ways to draw fans back to the ballpark, and the easiest way is winning. It’s pretty clear that the front office and ownership group are committed to their current rebuild, and the way things are going that could be a success a lot more quickly than we originally anticipated. That said, there’s still a long way to go, and season tickets for next season aren’t going to fly off the shelf because of an improved second half and some exciting rookies. It’s going to take better numbers in the win-loss column, and it might take at least a few months because the fan base buys in, if they do at all in 2020.

If the front office is concerned about trying to spike the attendance numbers now, they could change the narrative around this rebuild a bit with one or two decisions. I’m not suggesting that they should throw their chips on the table for next season at all, but bringing in an impact player that can help in 2020 and also when the team is ready to compete would be the type of thing that could win over some of the more sour fans out there. I doubt they’ll be able to lure him from Houston, but imagine how things would change if the Blue Jays outbid the rest of baseball on a guy like Gerrit Cole? That’s almost assuredly not in the cards, but adding a quality pitcher should be on the table. Perhaps an upgrade in the outfield or even at first base/DH would move the needle a bit.

I also believe that the Blue Jays need to get serious about some significant renovations to the Rogers Centre. While the front office has tinkered with things at the home ballpark, it would be great if the bigger issues were eventually tackled, like that grass infield we were all getting kinda excited about a few years back. That’s not happening in the short term, but that type of planned investment in this franchise would make a difference in the minds of many fans out there, including yours truly.

In the past we’ve heard things from the front office like, “we’ll invest when the time is right”, which is a bit of a backwards philosophy if you ask me. Again, I’m willing to be patient with this rebuild, especially given the young talent that debuted at the highest level this season, but I do think that ownership needs to do something to show the fans that they are serious about bringing a winner back to the Rogers Centre. There were a lot of significant steps taken in the right direction this year, and I really feel that it’s ownership’s turn to make the next move, especially given the payroll freedom they now enjoy. I mean, right now they’re looking at less than 30 million in commitments for next year, spending a little more than 36 million on their roster this season (and a whole bunch on players they traded away like Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin).

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Whatever decisions are made this winter will be driven by the long term picture, and that’s the right way to look at things at this stage to be sure. However, that doesn’t mean that ownership can’t make a show of faith and still feed into the long-term picture this offseason. After the way the attendance numbers have declined so drastically over the last two seasons, here’s hoping they find a way to do just that.