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Frank McCourt needs to consider how lowering payroll hurt Padres

September 27, 2010 |  1:26 pm

All is not lost. It can seem like it at times, with the losing and brain-dead decisions making a Dodgers follower almost numb to the possibility of a turnaround.

Yet, baseball is rife with tales of teams that hovered near the cellar one season, only to forge a remarkable rebirth the next.

The Times’ Kevin Baxter chronicled two of note as a beacon of hope to Dodgers fans: the bankrupt Texas Rangers and the even more apropos San Diego Padres, whose ownership went through a divorce and was forced to sell.

If fans can find encouragement in their stories, however, Frank McCourt should look at the Padres as a cautionary tale.

When it became clear that the payroll was going to be cut -- the Padres trading Jake Peavy and letting all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman leave to free agency -- attendance took a huge dip.

And despite the surprising Padres leading the National League West for much of the season, fans have yet to return.

The Padres have a terrific new ballpark, located in a happening area of downtown San Diego and a winning team.

And they’re averaging 26,268 tickets sold per game.

When Petco Park opened in 2004, the Padres averaged 37,531 per game. Three years ago, they were still averaging 34,445.

Now no doubt it costs more to attend a game at Petco than it did at Qualcomm Stadium and the economy the last few years hasn’t helped, yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe the fan base began to dissipate when it felt ownership wasn’t about to put its best effort into winning.

The divorce proceedings of Frank and Jamie McCourt have revealed all kinds of unsavory news about their ownership of the team, including that they have reportedly taken more than $100 million from the club for their personal use while intentionally reducing payroll.

At first blush, there has been no dramatic response at the gate. The Dodgers will finish with their lowest ticket sales in five years, but it won’t prove a significant drop. The club will still finish at more than 3.6 million.

Yet, those figures are misleading because baseball announces tickets sold and not actual attendance. Despite club comments to the contrary, no-shows appear up dramatically, particularly in the second half.

The Dodgers fan base is historically loyal, and taken for granted, but those no-shows could translate into diminished future tickets sold -- which naturally means less income for the McCourts.

And the Dodgers are their only true business source of income. That could create a nasty spiral, further battering the payroll, further hitting attendance.

A spiral of their own doing. Or undoing.

-- Steve Dilbeck