Winning at any Cost

How the Diamondbacks used huge debts to level the playing field of pro baseball.

"We probably could have sold another 1,000, but we didn't have the seats," Colangelo says.

While any increase will help, it is very unlikely the Diamondbacks will see a quick return to 36,000 season ticket holders, even if they win the World Series. Colangelo is hoping for a 5,000-seat season ticket increase, which would help kick the Diamondbacks back over three million a year in attendance.

But a 5,000-seat jump may be optimistic, particularly in a sports-saturated market like Phoenix, which boasts four professional teams and Arizona State University, which fields prominent football, baseball and basketball programs. Not only is the market oversold, it lags the country in personal income growth at a time the nation is tumbling into recession.

Palmer Taylor

Not even the New York Yankees, who have won four of the last five World Series titles prior to this year, boast season ticket sales above 30,000. A Yankees spokesman says season ticket sales topped 20,000 this year and the team drew 3.3 million to its 57,000-seat stadium.

Season ticket sales above 20,000 may look good to the Diamondbacks in another couple of years. Several other contending major league baseball teams already struggle to top that mark.

After appearing in the World Series last year, the New York Mets saw a 9 percent increase in its season ticket base to 18,400.

The Seattle Mariners, who have lost to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series the last two years, sold 19,700 season tickets this year -- and that was with the All-Star Game being played at Safeco Field.

Even more troubling is the attendance struggles faced by the Atlanta Braves -- a team that has been to the playoffs every year since 1991. If winning is everything, then why are the Braves losing fans?

The Braves' attendance peaked in 1993 with 28,300 season tickets that generated 3.9 million fans. But attendance has slipped steadily since then. Season ticket sales this year totaled 21,000, with attendance falling to 2.8 million. The Braves didn't come close to selling out in their deciding game against the Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series, just as the Diamondbacks failed to sell out the opening game against the Braves, a game that featured Randy Johnson.

Paul Adams, the Braves director of marketing, says a World Series team usually experiences a surge in ticket sales the next season, but sustaining it over time is more difficult.

"There needs to be a commitment to winning," he says. "If the fans see that, and if they change up the product enough, fans are going to continue to respond."

But World Series teams also bring other problems for the bottom line.

"Salaries usually go up," says Adams.

There's a belief in some baseball circles that expansion teams shouldn't win too fast.

It's an approach former Minnesota Twins executive Clark Griffith embraces. Griffith hails from a baseball family that once owned the Washington Senators before moving the team to Minneapolis in 1961.

Griffith wonders, since the Diamondbacks reached the World Series so quickly, whether the team will only be interesting to fans if it is a contender year in and year out.

"Have you been able to establish major league baseball in Phoenix, where the game is interesting and entertaining, or have you made a winning team the only thing to accept?" he asks.

It can take many years to build a strong baseball tradition in a community. But once it's established and fans learn the nuances of the game, attendance tends to level out even when teams have poor seasons.

The Diamondbacks are just beginning to crack the Arizona market. The Diamondbacks, Griffith says, need to steadily build support so they can rely on solid, long-term fan loyalty even in dismal years.

"What happens when they suddenly can't afford $100 million payrolls because they have to start paying down debt . . . and those debt payments require a full ballpark?" Griffith asks.

"It's one of the greatest Catch-22s of all time," adds Griffith.

Rather than mortgaging the future to win now, Griffith says the Diamondbacks would have been better off making incremental improvements.

"You don't want to win too fast," he says. "Then, you have a fan base that has been with you a long time and likes just going to ball games."

Reaching the World Series is the pinnacle of the sport. But it doesn't necessarily mean financial success.

"Getting to the World Series is good. But it also can be bad," Griffith says.

Colorado sports business consultant Dean Bonham, on the other hand, doesn't buy the go-slow approach. Bonham says the surest cure to flagging attendance is winning.

"If Colangelo continues to put a winning product on the field, that will stem the tide," says Bonham. Phoenix fans, he predicts, will strongly support the team in the wake of its World Series appearance.

But what if they don't?

"If the fans don't return next year, there is something wrong with the support for baseball that goes beyond putting a winning product on the field," he says.

"Jerry Colangelo," he says, "has fielded as exciting a baseball team as any in the league. They are going to the World Series. If that doesn't pull in baseball fans, I don't know what will."

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