As the first pitch was thrown at Angel Stadium on Wednesday night, the surrounding sight was all too familiar — gaping blocks of vacant seats in the upper deck and near the foul poles.
The patches of sparsely populated sections during weeknight games illustrate that Angels owner Arte Moreno's treasured attendance streak is in serious jeopardy. For the first time since 2002 — the year before Moreno bought the team — the Angels could fail to sell 3 million tickets.
"It could trend below that," said Robert Alvarado, the Angels' vice president of marketing and ticket sales.
The Angels' home attendance has dropped 4,556 per game from what it was through 29 games last year — the third-largest decline in the major leagues, according to Baseball-Reference.com, through Wednesday. They are on pace to sell 2.74 million tickets, down almost 20% from the record 3.41 million in 2006.
The slide in season-ticket sales has been steeper. The Angels have sold about 17,000 season tickets this season, Alvarado said — about the same as last year but down close to 30% from 2012 and almost 50% from the record 31,000 in 2006.
The plummeting attendance appears peculiar, given conventional wisdom that star players and winning teams sell tickets. The Angels boast the consensus best player in baseball, Mike Trout, and they are coming off a season in which they had the best record in the American League.
Yet the trend does not surprise Alvarado. He said the strength of the resale market — StubHub, Ticketmaster's Ticket Exchange, and similar services — means that fans do not have to buy or share season tickets to get a good seat. And, since the recession hit in 2008, fans have become increasingly interested in mini-plans rather than in buying a seat for all 81 games.
"It's not that they have quit on the Angels," Alvarado said. "They may have just stepped down from season seats."
The Angels have focused on selling good seats at strong prices rather than using deep discounts to try to sell every seat in the house, Alvarado said, adding that fans buying a $5 ticket are less likely to spend much on food, drinks or merchandise.
He said the Angels are about even with last year in revenue from tickets and concessions. Group sales are up, and so are luxury suite rentals. Donated tickets — charities and civic groups buy blocks and give them to schools, military personnel and the like — are down.
The Dodgers are on pace to lead the major leagues in attendance for the third consecutive year and could approach the club record of 3.86 million tickets sold, set in 2007. Alvarado said the Angels have not heard from fans canceling Angels seats to buy Dodgers seats.
The Dodgers have capped season-ticket sales at 35,000. Alvarado said the Dodgers build that base in part by selling blocks of seats to brokers and resale outlets.
"They've got a significantly larger wholesale business than we do," Alvarado said. "We choose not to go that model."
Such practices are common in sports, driving attendance in the hope that fans with discount tickets might spend on parking, food and souvenirs and might pay more for a ticket in the future. The Dodgers declined to discuss their models for ticket sales.
"We are very lucky to have such a strong and loyal fan base and they continue to come to Dodger Stadium in record numbers," said David Siegel, the Dodgers' vice president of ticket sales.
Jered Weaver, who has pitched in Anaheim since 2006, was not about to wonder aloud where the fans have gone.
"We've had some loyal fans through the years," Weaver said. "We've been getting 3 million for a long time now.
"When you win, they're going to show up. When you're not winning, they're not going to show up."
But ticket sales did not go up after a season in which the Angels won 98 games.
"It was sporadic," Weaver said. "It wasn't like we were hot for six months. I've got nothing but great things to say about our fans. They come out and show their support as often as they can."
The Angels are the fourth major league team for closer Huston Street, after stints with the Oakland Athletics, Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. Though the Angels' attendance decline is significant, the team still averages 33,861 per home game, which ranks sixth in the major leagues.
"This feels like a packed house every night," Street said. "I've been in other places where it is decidedly not that way. We'd have Wednesday day games where you were counting the fans.
"You play in front of 30,000-plus people every night, it feels pretty cool. You appreciate it."
The Angels' attendance might yet rise, as school lets out for summer. The New York Yankees come to Anaheim in June, the Boston Red Sox in July and the Dodgers in September. If the Angels compete in a tight pennant race, Alvarado said, they might challenge the 3-million mark.
The Angels won the World Series in 2002. They hit 3 million for the first time the next year, and in every year since then.
"I don't know if we'll ever see our season-seat sales where they were eight or nine years ago," Alvarado said. "It may take another world championship or two to create that frenzy again."