Dodgers’ fans are going, going . . .


Chavez Ravine, the little kingdom on the hill overlooking Los Angeles, was once the playground of the gods -- Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Mike Piazza -- and home to some of baseball’s most loyal fans.

Today, fans are fleeing in droves.

Through Sunday, attendance was down 7,013 per game, 196,367 for the season. In a tough economy, nearly half the Major League teams have suffered attendance drops. But nothing like the Dodgers’ slide. On average, league attendance has fallen 302. The Angels, for example, are down 576 fans per game. A slide in TV viewers is similarly alarming.

On the field, the team can’t seem to buy a break. Signs of their organizational funk: Hong-Chih Kuo, a pitcher tapped for a June bobblehead giveaway, came down with anxiety disorder and is on extended leave. Andre Ethier, their matinee idol right-fielder, is in hot water after flipping off photographers. On Saturday, a fire broke out.


With the Dodgers in the middle of another homestand, the team’s front office is tight-lipped over its souring fan base. Steve Soboroff, the team’s new executive in charge of the fan experience, declined to talk about the drop in attendance. Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers’ vice president of communications, said: “Internally, we think it’s a number of factors.”

Rawitch wouldn’t go into specifics, but the team can choose from several likely causes: a backlash against owners Frank and Jamie McCourt; the team’s punchless performance at the plate; the brutal opening day attack on a Giants fan; an unseasonably cool spring; the poor overall economy and the fact that school isn’t out yet -- always a turning point for attendance.

Each of those bears part of the blame for the swoon. But in the hardball world of fan opinion, the ultimate target of disenchantment is owner Frank McCourt. Were there such a thing as owner approval ratings, his would be Hooveresque.

Although the Dodgers have been to the playoffs four of the last seven years, the McCourts’ divorce, their court fight over ownership of the team, the struggles to meet payroll and the league takeover of finances have embarrassed their fans and tested that blindest of faiths -- team allegiance.

Ultimately, many fans have felt that they were not getting their money’s worth.

“The McCourts raised my ticket prices 40% and my parking 30% in two years,” said Robert Ostrove, who had been a season ticket holder for 23 years and now watches only on TV. “I decided the cost exceeded the entertainment value I was getting from seeing the hacks they dug up.

“People are always saying ‘Shouldn’t they put in a family section?’ And I say, ‘Hey, shouldn’t the whole stadium be a family section?’ ”

The cost of tickets, food and souvenirs for a family of four to attend a Dodger game has, in fact, dipped slightly, according to the annual Team Marketing Report, which chronicles costs across the league. Still, the team has the seventh-highest average ticket price, and premium seats are the second most expensive in baseball.

David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute, doesn’t believe any one factor has contributed to the malaise. “It’s a series of things,” he said. “And, as always, fan perception.”

Carter, like Ostrove, points to the team’s mediocre play, the threatening atmosphere and the McCourts’ life of conspicuous consumption as reasons behind the attendance fade.

“At some point, you wonder if they’re going to roll out a Charlie Beck bobblehead night,” he quipped, referring to the police chief and increased law enforcement presence at the stadium.

But, Carter added, “there’s still a cultural desire to see the team do well, to pull up at the Sunset Gate and see the palm trees and the sea of blue. Some have jumped off the bandwagon but I think they would get back on the bandwagon with equal speed.”

In a sign of widespread fan frustration, though, TV ratings for Dodger telecasts are down dramatically too -- nearly 10% over the same period a year ago. Per telecast, 73,000 households are following the Dodgers, down from 81,000 last year, according to the latest Nielsen surveys. Carter says such a drop translates into an actual “diminishing of the brand.”

The great baseball portraitist Roger Kahn, whose writing about the Dodger glory days in the ‘50s has made him an unofficial team historian, once said that, “In a perfect world, the Dodgers would’ve stayed in Brooklyn and Los Angeles would have gotten the Mets.”

That it didn’t became one of L.A.’s great gifts -- like sea breezes and sunny New Year’s afternoons. The city inherited a franchise with history and mystique. In a city full of castles, Walter O’Malley built his Valhalla on a mound of dirt that had been scooped out to create the Hollywood Freeway.

Today, Kahn says that the Dodgers are at their lowest point financially since World War II, when gate receipts were stuffed into unsecured duffle bags and pilfered on their way to the bank. O’Malley, then a lawyer specializing in foreclosures, was assigned to bring the team out of debt, and talked his way into owning a portion of the Dodgers.

“O’Malley said, ‘The only way I can sort this out is to become part owner,’ ” Kahn recalled.

From then on, the Dodgers’ prospects soared, guided by an owner who moved the team West and developed one of the most cherished fan-franchise relationships in all of sports.

He created, at Chavez Ravine, the kind of place “a guy wants to take his date on a Friday night,” Kahn said.

But you still have to win, Kahn noted, adding: “Bill Veeck used to say, ‘I’m known as a promoter. But first I win, and then I promote.’ ”

It remains to be seen how quickly McCourt, or any subsequent owner, can get the team back on a winning track. Much of that hinges on a lucrative new television deal that’s been held up by the league as it tries to get a handle on the team’s finances.

Until then, a Dodger backlash is plainly evident, in person and at home. Jon Crowley, a television executive and stadium regular since he was a kid, recalls watching a televised game recently and thinking, “Holy moly, look at all those empty seats.”

“When have you seen giant swatches of empty seats like this?” he asked. “This is people voting with their pocketbooks.”

Al Perrine gave up his season tickets last year. He blames the McCourts -- “that’s the easy answer,” he said -- but also points to cheaper alternatives such as StubHub, where he can pay less for better seats on the resale market.

“I have no real incentive to being a season ticket holder, other than knowing the people around me,” he said.

The genial vibe of season ticket sections is something Perrine has forfeited, and he’s critical of the sort of behavior he sees as he samples different locations through the secondary ticket market.

“There is no way I would take a kid to a game now,” he says, citing other fans’ bad language. “I’ve heard that same thing countless times from friends with kids or grandkids.... I think it’s the silent component to all this.”

When the legal dust settles, can this franchise be saved? It still has that mystique, after all, and perhaps more important, fans whose fondness for the team was handed down from parents and grandparents.

That generational allegiance may one day be the team’s benediction.

“I’m extremely concerned by the politics and the drama,” said Jason Smisko, taking in a recent late afternoon game with his son Kyle, 9. “But as a father with a son who loves baseball, I try to put that behind me and focus on the bonding experience.

“If I didn’t have a son -- if my brother and I were here instead -- it’d be an extremely different conversation.”