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White Sox And Baseball Attendance Down: It's The Economy, Stupid

The Sox are in a tight pennant race yet not drawing the sellouts you might expect. George examines why.

If you're losing your home, don't have a job or are drowning in debt, you don't think of buying $43 baseball tickets.

There are enough people in this predicament to account for the dip in baseball attendance, much publicized in a revival of a long-time issue with the White Sox, but also noticeably affecting the Cubs.

It's the economy, stupid, nothing more, nothing less. Spending on a discretionary item like a baseball ticket, which has gone up far faster than the incomes used to support such purchases.

I'm writing this from U.S. Cellular Field on a sultry Saturday nijght where the ballpark is finally filling to capacity on a crucial homestand that opened with three games in a row against the arch-rival Minnesota Twins that did not come close to selling out. One hour into the game, which almost all fans arrived by now, only the last two sections of the upper deck down the lines have any empty seats. But Saturday night is always the biggest drawing date for the Sox, and the Detroit Tigers

My theory, for what it's worth, is that cash-strapped fans are cutting down the number of games they choose to attend. And when they go is another issue. Weekday or weeknight games that might have sold out two or three years ago are now falling thousands short of capacity. Fans with scarce jobs are choosing to keep their nose to the grindstone on weekdays, saving their ballpark patronage for weekends, as was a pre-1980s attendance pattern.

All season, the Sox have struggled to fill The Cell on weeknights. Management has quietly extended the kind of discounts typically seen on weeknights to some weekend dates. A few weeks back, the Sox had a special "Northwest Indiana Sox Fans Night" -- on a Friday night. A huge range of tickets were discounted $10 starting with $43 seats. The $28 upper-deck tickets were sold for half-price at $14. It's nearly unthinkable for the Sox to have to peddle tickets at cut-rate prices on a Friday night, which used to be "fight night" amid big crowds at old Comiskey Park across the street. The Friday crowds used to be the second biggest of the week after Sundays. But a recent Friday game against the Royals in perfect 77-degree weather drew only a shade more than 25,000. Now Saturday night is the top drawing night, not just on the South Side, but all over baseball.

A similar pattern has taken hold at Wrigley Field. The recent weekend series against the Reds was sold out, and included an increasing number of Cincy fans, although they paled in numbers compared to Cardinals or even Brewers rooters. Meanwhile, going back to a Dodgers series in May whose diminished crowd counts puzzled management, weeknight games that normally would be packed  with at least 39,000, and usually up to 41,000, in the house have fallen several thousand short of capacity. Rows of empty bleacher benches, particularly in the upper center-field area, sprouted for Monday-Wednesday night games, and were particularly in evidence when the low-interest Astros were in town.

A Cubs season that has steadily spiraled downward, but dramatically picking up speed after the All-Star break, has been a big factor. But if you polled fans who both attended and stayed away, you'll likely find much more discriminating spending and more targeted attendance patterns toward weekends and prime opponents.

If houses, autos and retail sales are flat or slumping, why would baseball tickets be immune? There are cheaper methods of entertainment. And, by the way, you no longer see full box seats or bleachers in places like St. Louis on sizzling summer Sundays with the air temperatures in the mid-90s and heat indexes pushing 110. There are cooler alternatives than boiling to death in the heat for a populace used to air conditioning in the past two generations. No longer do people need to flee roasting,  poorly-ventilated urban flats to enjoy the outdoors at a Sunday doubleheader in the heat. Same principle as when Steve Stone described the torrid outdoors on the field as more temperate than the sauna conditions of the cramped old Cubs clubhouse in the left-field corner.

Sox fans love their team. They weren't boycotting or ignoring the big series with the Twins. Many simply could not afford to attend.

Sellouts may still abound in Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Target Field, Citizens Bank Ballpark and A T & T Ballpark. But the rest of baseball is suffering its biggest attendance drop in 15 years. Many fans won't be coming back soon, not until their empty pocketbooks are full. Others will pick and choose their games more carefully.

The bottom line is labor and management may have to bite the bullet next time they negotiate for their mutual benefit. The goose will only be golden in moderation in the future.