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Seattle Mariners attendance woes continue

By Jerry Beach

The Seattle Mariners have one of the city's most beloved athletes ever and a surefire Hall of Famer batting leadoff, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner atop their rotation and perhaps the most exciting young pitcher in baseball serving as their fifth starter. But the presence of Ichiro Suzuki, Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, respectively, probably won't be enough for the Mariners to avoid enduring another sub-.500 season and the worst summer, attendance-wise, in the 12-year history of Safeco Field.

The Mariners, a consensus pick to finish last in the AL West after losing 100 games for the second time in three years last season, are actually stirring a bit after completing a three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers in Michigan Thursday, April 28. But the Mariners still have a lot of ground to make up, both in the AL West (where they are last with an 11-15 record) and with a fanbase running out of patience following an extended run of mediocrity.

In 13 home dates this year, the Mariners have drawn the two smallest crowds in the 12-year history of Safeco Field (13,056 against the Toronto Blue Jays Monday, April 11 and 12,407 for the series finale two days later) as well as three other crowds of less than 13,000 and six of less than 15,000. Last year, the Mariners played to a crowd of less than 15,000 just twice, the last time on May 5.

Overall, the Mariners are averaging 19,162 fans per game at 47,878-seat Safeco, which ranks 11th in the American League and represents a drop of 6,829 fans from last year's average. That's the second-biggest decline in Major League Baseball, ahead of only the divorce-wracked Los Angeles Dodgers.

In addition, the Seattle Times reported earlier this month that the Mariners have likely sold less than 10,000 season tickets for the first time since moving into Safeco Field during the 1999 season (the Mariners didn't confirm the numbers to the newspaper) and will probably fall under the 2 million mark in attendance for the first time in the Safeco era.

"Losing 101 games like we have [twice in the last three years], we expected lower attendance and are projecting lower attendance," Mariners president Chuck Armstrong told the Times.

Failing to draw 2 million fans would be the latest blow for a franchise that redefined itself, on and off the field, in the years leading up to and following the move to Safeco Field. The Mariners, who were founded in 1977, had just two winning seasons in their first 18 seasons and were seemingly doomed to leave Seattle and the antiquated Kingdome behind before a stunning late-season run to the playoffs in 1995 — the Mariners went 26-13 in their final 39 games to make up a 12.5-game deficit on the then California Angels, whom the Mariners beat in a one-game playoff for the AL West title — reignited baseball in the Emerald City and led to funding being approved to build Safeco Field.

The Mariners had seven winning seasons in nine years between 1995 and 2003, during which they made the playoffs four times and reached the AL Championship Series three times. The Mariners peaked in 2001, when they won a record 116 regular season games and finished first in the AL in attendance (3,507,326) for the first time ever.

But the Mariners never made it to the World Series — with the Texas Rangers reaching the Fall Classic last year, the Mariners are now the only American League team to never get to the World Series — and their performance, both on the field and at the gate, has declined steadily and almost non-stop since 2001. The Mariners again led the AL in attendance in 2002 with a franchise-record 3,542,938, but attendance has slipped in seven of the last eight years (the only exception was 2007, when the Mariners drew almost 200,000 fans more than the previous season).

The Mariners have had just two winning seasons since 2004, and both those campaigns were followed by 100-loss seasons. And last year, the Mariners finished eighth in the AL in attendance at 2,085,630, the first time since 1995 that they have not ranked among the AL's top half.

Attendance-wise, the Mariners are a long way from their woebegone days in the Kingdome, where they drew fewer than 1 million fans six times in seven years between 1978 and 1984 and regularly ranked at or near the bottom of the AL in overall figures. And the Mariners are no longer a symbol of a small-market team that doesn't have the resources to compete, not with a payroll north of $80 million and no plans to trade their superstars Suzuki and Hernandez. But, it is clear they'll have to start playing like a big market team in order to once again draw like one.

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