When the Oakland Athletics open their season at home against the New York Yankees next month, the entire upper deck will be covered by green tarpaulins, making the Coliseum the midget of the major leagues.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the A’s -- who have struggled for years with low attendance -- hope that by permanently closing off about 10,000 of the stadium’s most undesirable seats they will make more money by boosting demand and renewing fan loyalty.
“When you have that many empty seats, there’s no urgency to buy,” said A’s president Michael Crowley. “You’re dependent on team performance, which as much as we think we can control that, it’s not always the case.”
Since the early 1990s, major league clubs have torn out seats and built smaller stadiums to put fans closer to the diamond and capitalize on the energy of a packed house. But Oakland’s strategy, which also includes cutting prices, is a relatively novel approach to stoking fan interest.
Seating capacity in the stadium the A’s share with the Oakland Raiders will be reduced from 44,073 to 34,077 for baseball, supplanting Boston’s Fenway Park as the smallest stadium in the major leagues. The capacity will stay at 63,132 for football.
Other teams are eyeing reduced seating for its revenue-generating potential.
When $365 million Busch Stadium opens April 10 in St. Louis, the league’s newest ballpark will have about 3,500 fewer seats than its predecessor.
The Yankees are asking New York City to approve a privately financed $800 million stadium that will cut the number of seats from the current Yankee Stadium total of 57,000 to as little as 50,800.
And before last season, the Chicago White Sox tore out 6,600 of U.S. Cellular Field’s most vertigo-inducing seats.
Eliminating tough-to-sell cheap seats makes good business sense, says Dan Champeau, who leads the sports credit-rating practice at Fitch Ratings.
“The economics of these facilities are not driven by walk-up ticket revenue,” he said. “They’re driven by longer-term contracts -- premium seating, luxury seats, naming rights. So the cost of providing those cheaper seats in the long run might not make sense.”
The trend isn’t limited to baseball.
Stanford University is spending $90 million to build a new football stadium that will slash seating capacity by 35,000 seats. Crews began tearing down 85,000-seat Stanford Stadium, which once hosted a Super Bowl, on Nov. 26 after the Cardinal’s season-ending loss to Notre Dame. Construction on the new facility is expected to be completed for the Sept. 16 home opener against Navy.
Declining attendance and the cavernous feel at half-empty home games made downsizing a necessity, said the university’s interim athletic director, Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49er coach.
“The entire spectator appeal was diminishing rapidly,” he said. “We want people to be really anxious to come to our games. We want there to be a crush for tickets. And you just don’t have that when people feel tickets are available whenever they want them.”
Smaller stadiums caught on after the Baltimore Orioles in 1992 and the Cleveland Indians in 1994 opened new downtown ballparks to sellout crowds despite having fewer seats, said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago sports consulting firm.
“People discovered that less was actually more,” Ganis said.
Envious ballclubs also looked to Fenway Park for a reminder of the virtues of ticket scarcity. The Boston Red Sox have long been one of the hottest tickets in baseball despite having the smallest stadium in the majors.
Oddly, it’s Boston that seems to be bucking the trend, adding seats wherever they’ll fit to eventually reach a capacity of 38,805.
The strategy can backfire when a team begins to falter, or the novelty of a new stadium wears off, Ganis said.
Attendance at Pittsburgh Pirate games spiked in 2001 after the team moved into PNC Park, which is significantly smaller than predecessor Three Rivers Stadium. But attendance waned in subsequent years.
“Their attendance was poor at Three Rivers, then it just became less poor at PNC Park,” Ganis said.
Stanford officials hope to add as much as $6 million in stadium revenue per year. They anticipate selling at least 40,000 season tickets, nearly a fourfold increase from the 11,000 sold last year, Walsh said.
A’s officials, who declined to release specific revenue forecasts, say season ticket sales are up slightly, from 7,000 last year to about 8,000 so far this season.
“Any increase is a good increase,” Crowley said. “Would I like 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000? Sure. But this is a new concept, people are still kind of grappling with it. But as time goes on, maybe there will be that sense of urgency.”