MLB·Analysis

Anyone want Jays tickets? Bueller? Bueller?

After wandering in the baseball wilderness for decades, the Toronto Blue Jays looked to be on a path to once again becoming a focal point of the Toronto sports scene. Now there is a risk all of that capital and goodwill could disappear.

Decreasing attendance has shown fans have limited interest in a lengthy rebuild

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada sprays champagne on fans after defeating the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of American League Division Series in October 2015. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The phone calls used to start near the end of March, just as spring training was wrapping up down in Florida.

Did I have any extra tickets for the upcoming season? Were there any games I wanted to sell? Could my dad make that Yankees game in late July?

As part of a long-time Blue Jays season ticket group, I have come to welcome those calls over the years.

But last season, I barely got any Blue Jays inquiries.

This year, there have been none.

The Blue Jays enter this season — their 42nd — in a precarious spot in Toronto. After wandering in the baseball wilderness for decades, the Blue Jays looked to be on a path to once again becoming a focal point of the Toronto sports scene.

Now there is a risk that all of that capital and goodwill could disappear.

In 2015 and 2016, the team reached the League Championship series, along the way tapping into a young, vibrant fan base that once again made going to Blue Jays games fun.

In 2016, fans flocked to watch a winning team. The Blue Jays drew nearly 3.5 million fans, ranking third in the league in attendance.

Even in 2017, when the Jays finished in fourth place, they remained a hot ticket, drawing more than three million fans.

Last season, Blue Jay fans made it clear they had no interest in paying to watch a losing team. 

Jose Bautista's iconic bat-flip home run in the 2015 ALDS against Texas is the high point of the past decade of Blues Jays seasons. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Jays saw the steepest attendance decline in all of baseball, dropping to 2,325,281, an average of more than 10,000 fans per game.

Bleaker box office days could be ahead.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it's down a little bit," Jays president Mark Shapiro told reporters recently at the club's Dunedin, Fla., spring training facility.

"But I don't expect it to be down dramatically. I still think you'll find us somewhere in the middle [in attendance.] And for us to say that in our down years is nothing for us to be embarrassed of."

But opening day could be a warning sign.

Is anybody home?

The game is usually a guaranteed sellout and a chance for optimism — the one day when every team is in first place.

A look at various ticket websites shows thousands of tickets still available for the home opener.

Baseball super-agent Scott Boras says it should come as no surprise.

"Toronto is a wonderful city, it's been a great franchise, they've drawn three million fans," Boras told reporters during the off-season. "They've lost near a third of their fan base due to the Blue Flu of not bringing attractive players that their fans find interesting to their market."

Shapiro has acknowledged that this season is part of a rebuilding process that likely won't produce a winning team for a number of years.

"I'm more concerned with, do we have a good long-term plan?" Shapiro said. "And are we moving towards the goal of putting a championship team on the field here? As long as I feel like we're making progress to that goal, I feel like in the end it will work out."

For now, there is little star power on this team and few names casual baseball fans will recognize. The team has neither pursued nor signed any big-name free agents. This will be a team of young players who will be asked to compete in one of baseball's toughest divisions.

Most of the excitement around this year's Blue Jays is being generated by a player who won't be on the opening day roster. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball but likely won't join the team until at least mid-April.

Baseball experts and betting websites predict a difficult season ahead with the Jays pegged to lose nearly 90 games.

Most of the excitement around the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays is being generated by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who is regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball but likely won’t join the team until at least mid-April, writes Jamie Strashin. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Maury Brown, who covers baseball for Forbes, says teams like the Blue Jays can have a difficult time maintaining fan excitement and engagement amidst a rebuild.

"There is recent history that everybody wants to look at. They say look how bad the Astros were or how bad the Cubs were and then look what they did," Brown points out. "I'm sure that if you put fans in a corner and said, 'Look, we're going to be bad and we're going to have multiple hundred loss seasons but you could have a World Series championship,' most fans would agree."

Brown says while most hardcore fans may see the merits of a rebuild, casual fans may simply walk away.

"With Toronto, if they decide to hang around the bottom for two or three more seasons then it becomes a real issue," Brown says. "They have already been in the wilderness. Are they going to be stuck there again? The question from a fan's perspective is how long are you going to be bad?"

The Jays' descent back into mediocrity comes at a time when there are lots of other things to cheer about in Toronto.

Hiding in the shadows of Leafs, Raptors

The Maple Leafs appear poised for a deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs, while the Raptors are near the top of the Eastern Conference and may be ready to finally make a playoff run.

Fans may finally turn their attention to the Blue Jays in mid-June, only to find their team already buried in the standings with little prospect for success. Hardly something that would make people want to come out to the ball park.

Brown says the team must show fans that it is committed to rebuilding a winning team. And yes, that entails stockpiling young talent. But in the super competitive American League East, where the Jays must stack up with the high-rolling New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — last year's World Series champions — the importance of spending money can't be denied.

"When the Blue Jays won those back-to-back World Series, they were at the top of the league in spending and there is really something to be said about spending," Brown says. "If you look at the Astros, right now they're not that team that was down in the lower quarter of spending. They said, 'Okay, well now we've developed our prospects. Now we spend.'"

That would generate excitement around the team on the field and create traffic at the box office. It would also convince fans the team is serious about sustained success, not fleeting moments followed by prolonged losing.

It may mean few more phone calls. But that's okay.

About the Author

Jamie Strashin

Reporter

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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