Are the New York Mets so disliked that they can’t give their tickets away? They’re about to find out.

The Mets, whose already sinking popularity in New York dropped even further with the news that owner Fred Wilpon and his family actually profited off Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, unveiled new season ticket plans this week in which fans who purchase a five-, 11- or 17-game package will get one extra game free.

These packages all include a ticket to Opening Day and one of the Subway Series games against the Yankees. In addition, the Mets will waive the $25 processing fee for those who buy one of the packages before February 26.

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Mets executive vice president of business operations David Howard told the New York Times that the free tickets were an “added value benefit” and that the new packages were designed “…in response to feedback we have received from our fans through various research and outreach efforts over the past year.”

All of which is the corporate way of saying the Mets are desperate after the Madoff news further embarrassed a franchise that opened up Citi Field with two straight losing seasons and suffered the biggest attendance drop in Major League Baseball in 2010.

“It’s basically another form of discounting,” Vince Gennaro, the former president of PepsiCo and a consultant to Major League Baseball teams, told the Times. “I wouldn’t doubt for a minute that the Mets wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t necessary.”

The Mets announced last November they would dramatically cut season ticket prices for 2011, but further efforts became necessary when the Times, followed by other media outlets, began reporting that Irving Picard, a trustee representing Madoff victims, may seek to recover as much as $1 billion from the Wilpon family and co-owner Saul Katz, who were believed to have lost money in the Ponzi scheme but actually made $48 million on it. Fred Wilpon said he was interested in selling as much as 25 percent of the Mets, but many believe he will have no choice but to sell the entire team.

Besides the team potentially experiencing trouble selling tickets this season, ticket brokers are also beginning to shy away from stocking inventory. When asked whether he had many Mets tickets, broker Jeremi Conaway told TicketNews no, “thank god.”

The feelings of fans or brokers are a minor concern for the Wilpons compared to the legal issues, but the association with Madoff may have been the final blow for a loyal fan base already disgruntled with the team’s poor on-field performance and a series of missteps by ownership. Citi Field opened in 2009, just months after its sponsor, Citi, needed a $45 billion bailout, and was as much or more a homage to the Brooklyn Dodgers (Fred Wilpon’s favorite team as a child) than the Mets. Many longtime fans were priced out of Citi Field, which holds almost 16,000 fewer fans than Shea Stadium, after the Mets raised ticket prices by as much as 100 percent prior to their debut season in the facility.

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While this is the biggest mess the Mets have ever been in, it’s not the first time the franchise has ramped up its marketing efforts in hopes of luring fans back to Queens. In the late 1990s, as the Mets were returning to contention after an extended run at or near the bottom of the NL East, almost every member of the Mets — including superstar catcher Mike Piazza and manager Bobby Valentine — would greet fans and sign autographs when single game tickets went on sale at Shea Stadium between New Year’s Day and the start of spring training.

As the Mets continued their surge back to prominence — they reached the playoffs in 1999 and fell to the Yankees in the 2000 World Series — fewer and less famous players showed up to Shea every winter until it was just alumni such as Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra greeting fans. Shea was reduced to a pile of rubble after the 2008 season and only time will tell if the Wilpon empire is following suit. advertisement