Attendance soars even as economy sags

LOS ANGELES – Takashi Saito was on the mound, the fans inside Dodger Stadium were on their feet and, with the home team closing in on victory in the ninth inning, there was a quirky sight in the left-field bleachers.

A middle-aged woman wearing a Dodgers cap and an expression as unflinching as Saito’s reached into her canvas carryall and pulled out a tall kitchen plastic bag. Her timing was as impeccable as Saito’s last pitch.

Arizona’s Mark Reynolds struck out swinging, and before the crowd of 42,590 began filing out the stadium, Dawn Vieyra, aka “The Double Coupon Queen,” went to work scooping recyclables into the bag. Her postgame routine offered insight into the national economy, team loyalty and the financial health of professional sports in the face of a recession.

Gas prices are up. Food prices are up. So, oddly enough, is attendance at Major League Baseball games.

MLB officials say attendance is 2.6 percent ahead of record-breaking figures from last season, when the 30 teams raked in more than $6 billion. The NBA and the NFL also say they see no signs that the economy will cut into attendance or profits. But Bob Dupuy, MLB’s chief operating officer, echoed the sentiment of the three leagues when he said, “We will be closely monitoring ticket sales throughout the season.”

They might start by monitoring the fortunes of people like Vieyra and her friend, Jorge Lopez. She is 57. He is 51. Both lost their jobs in recent years, and despite the Dodgers’ slow start, they express more confidence in their favorite team than in the economy.

Photo Dawn Vieyra and Jorge Lopez can’t imagine giving up their seats in the left-field bleachers.
(Jon Soo Hoo / Y! Sports)

So after combing the bleachers for plastic bottles, they scour the parking lot for aluminum cans and glass bottles. The money they make recycling, plus the money they save from the double coupons Vieyra famously clips, help pay for season tickets cherished by the pair.

Lopez is a gregarious man who sports a Fu Manchu, long black hair and two stainless steel earrings in his left lobe. Vieyra is a small, reserved woman whose well-groomed blond hair is streaked with gray. One might guess they met at a convention for retired librarians and bar bouncers, but they fit right in with a growing segment of fans that is struggling financially and still attending games.

“I’m feeling the crunch right now,” Vieyra said. “You start to think, ‘What do you have of value? Do you give up the tickets?’ ”

Eventually, Vieyra and Lopez might have no choice. But in delaying what might be inevitable, they could serve as a case study for economists and sociologists who examine consumer behavior of sports fans – and a clue to anyone wondering if the economic downturn could impact pro sports.

Photo The gregarious Lopez serves as a de facto usher at Dodger Stadium.
(Jon Soo Hoo / Y! Sports)

“People seek the comfort of their sports addiction when there’s bad economic times,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist. “There’s something very deeply rooted about our sports attachments. People tend to give that up last.”

As financial analysts debate whether the U.S. economy has entered a recession and, if so, how long it will last, Vieyra and Lopez have more immediate concerns. They run a small printing business, Impressive Imprintz, that’s struggling as badly as Andruw Jones, the Dodgers’ pricey offseason acquisition whose batting average has sunk farther than the U.S. dollar.

“When are they going to put him on the bench and let someone substitute for him?” Vieyra grumbled after watching Jones strike out yet again.

Even if Jones whiffs during every at-bat, he will make $36.2 million over the next two years thanks to a guaranteed contract. MLB, the NFL and the NBA also are guaranteed to make billions, thanks to long-term TV contracts and multi-year corporate sponsorship deals. They also depend on millions generated from luxury boxes and premium seats. But a recent occurrence suggests team owners still value customers like Vieyra and Lopez.

Dodgers owner Frank McCourt visited the left-field pavilion earlier this season and mingled with fans in what some would call the cheap seats, which range in price from $8 to $13, but Lopez calls “holy ground.”

Before a recent game, the Double Coupon Queen and her sidekick arrived at Dodger Stadium with their canvas carryall in hand. A security guard waved them through after a quick search. Had he inspected more closely, the guard would have found chips, peanuts, crackers and bottled water.

Appalled at the notion of paying $10 for a beer or $5 for a hot dog, they bring their own food and drinks. But others might be just as appalled to learn that in spite of financial problems, Vieyra and Lopez shelled out $1,583 for a package of tickets and parking passes to 40 of the Dodgers’ 81 home games.

Year Attendance Avg. Att.
1970 28,747,333 14,788
1971 29,193,417 15,064
1972* 26,968,268 14,507
1973 30,108,926 15,496
1974 30,025,608 15,437
1975 29,789,913 15,403
1976 31,318,331 16,152
1977 38,709,779 18,407
1978 40,636,886 19,332
1979 43,550,398 20,748
1980 43,014,136 20,434
1981* 26,544,376 19,042
1982 44,587,874 21,162
1983 45,540,338 21,593
1984 44,742,863 21,256
1985 46,824,379 22,266
1986 47,506,203 22,590
1987 52,011,506 24,709
1988 52,998,904 25,238
1989 55,173,096 26,198
1990 54,823,768 26,045
1991 56,813,760 27,003
1992 55,870,466 26,529
1993 70,257,938 30,964
1994* 50,010,016 31,256
1995* 50,469,236 25,022
1996 60,097,381 26,510
1997 63,168,689 27,877
1998 70,601,147 29,054
1999 70,139,380 28,888
2000 71,358,907 29,378
2001 72,581,101 29,881
2002 67,390,074 28,114
2003 67,630,489 28,051
2004 73,022,969 30,401
2005 74,926,174 30,970
2006 76,042,787 31,404
2007 79,503,175 32,785
*Strike-shortened season
Bold marks recession years
– Shane Sabran, Global Sports and Entertainment

But the two Dodger die-hards are exhibiting typical consumer behavior, according to Vassillis Dalakas, an assistant professor of marketing at Northern Kentucky University. He said teams shrewdly have targeted fans who can’t afford a full allotment of season tickets by offering them a smaller block of games.

“From a psychological standpoint, that can really help a consumer rationalize spending that money,” Dalakas said. “You can spend a lot of money and think you got a great value.”

But Dalakas cautioned against passing judgment, even if it appears the money could have been spent more wisely.

“A product can offer functional benefits and psychological benefits,” he said. “What’s the practical purpose of having a great piece of art unless it’s hiding a hole in the wall?

“Sometimes perceived value may not be real value. But sometimes perceived value, the fact that it’s about emotions, doesn’t make it any less valuable.”

Understanding the value of those tickets to Vieyra and Lopez required a trip to the ballpark, where it became clear their excursions are about more than the games.

Upon entering the stadium, Vieyra headed for the seats and Lopez for the concession stand. He called out to one of the female attendants – “Hey, Mamacita,” – and planted two large souvenir cups on the stainless steel counter. By now, the cashiers know the drill.

An older woman filled those cups with ice. Lopez offered hearty thanks. Then he joined Vieyra in Section 305, where he plopped down on the aisle seat in row D. Moments later, he spotted another regular about 30 feet away.

The two men extended their arms, palms turned down and exchanged bows. Another regular arrived with his scorebook, and Lopez gave the man a hug. But they all stayed alert, because batting-practice balls fell from the sky like so many meteors.

“Watch out,” yelled Lopez, shielding a visitor with his ample body as another ball cleared the left-field wall and pinballed against the bleachers.

Seated more than 300 feet from home plate, it’s impossible to know if the umpire actually yells “Play Ball!” So Lopez does it, loud enough for everyone in the left-field pavilion to hear. A former Marine, he also barks “Colors,” right before the start of the national anthem, directs lost souls to their seats and, during a recent game, fetched ice for a 13-year-old boy who got plunked in the forehead by a batting-practice ball.

When the game began, one could almost imagine Lopez lifting a wine glass to his nose and taking in an intoxicating aroma.

“This is holy land,” he said. “You get to smell the grass. You get to smell the sweat.”

Yet after the Dodgers took a 3-0 lead in the third inning, Vieyra pointed skyward at seats outside one of the luxury boxes.

“One time, just one time, we want to get those seats,” she said.

“Just the perspective so we can look down,” Lopez said. “Not that we’re haughty.”

Like downtowns across America, arenas and stadiums have become gentrified. They’ve been carved up like subdivisions that separate the working class from the middle class, the middle class from the upper-middle class, and the upper-middle class from the obscenely rich.

“Not everybody’s income falls during a recession,” said John Solow, an economics professor at the University of Iowa. “In total, people are getting poorer or it wouldn’t be considered a recession. But there are some people whose income continues to rise.

“What fraction of those tickets are sold to Joe Six-Pack and his family as opposed to corporations?”

A look at the luxury boxes that stretch from one side of Dodger Stadium to the other offers a clue. So does the Dugout Club, which has the look and feel of a gated community. A retaining wall and security guards block the path of interlopers trying to get to the premium seats behind home plate.

There’s no sign of economic hardship there. All 900 seats, which range in price from $500 to $650 per game, were bought before the season. Five of them in the front row directly behind home plate belong to Scott Boras, the agent who represents Andruw Jones and pitcher Derek Lowe.

Earl Walton, sitting 17 rows behind the retaining wall, expressed no concern about the price of his $85 tickets. The company he works for, Dunn/Edwards Paints, owns a block of four tickets. The collapse of the housing market has hurt business, Walton said, adding that the company would find ways to cut costs. “But they can’t get rid of these,” he said of the tickets. “No way.”

Nearby, Russell Soebbing sat with his three children and broke bad news on the way to the ballpark. The half-dozen trips they usually take to Lake Havasu? This summer, there’d only be two trips to the Arizona vacation spot – if that. Gas prices were to blame, he said.

He estimated the traditional five-day excursions cost $2,500 apiece, with half the money spent on gas guzzled by the family’s motor home, boat and jet skis. “There’s a point where you have to say enough,” said Soebbing, who owns a carpet business and figures he’ll take his kids to more Dodger games because, at roughly $500 a pop, they are more affordable than trips to the lake.

Sitting in the handicapped section of the first level, Alviar Lupe Jr. of Michigan disclosed something to his wife, Marian, when she returned from the concession stand. The tickets were $100 apiece. That’s on top of the $200 they paid to rent a van that would accommodate his wheelchair. Not to mention the travel expenses incurred while joining his wife on a business trip to Southern California just so he could watch his beloved Dodgers during the team’s 50-year anniversary since moving to Los Angeles from Brooklyn.

Marian Lupe looked down at the cardboard carton loaded with two hot dogs, two bags of chips and two bottles of water. “Twenty-eight dollars,” she said, incredulously. “But they are foot-long hot dogs.”

Alviar Lupe grinned wearily and said, “I just called my children and said, ‘Your inheritance is gone.’ ”

Ron Cooper, a retired sound man in the movie industry, has sat in some of the most expensive seats at the stadium. But he said he always returns to what he considers home – the left-field bleachers. There, he sits next to people he considers family, even those he knows only by first name but greets with hugs because he’s been watching games with them for years. It’s also the place where after big plays, he turns in the direction of the Double Coupon Queen, catches the eye of Jorge Lopez and exchanges those playful bows.

The Dodgers again are on pace to reach at least 3.8 million in attendance, a major reason McCourt recently announced plans to revamp the stadium and the surrounding area with $500 million in private funds.

“I wonder how much our ticket prices are going to go up,” Lopez said. But the thought of giving them up seemed preposterous when he looked around the bleachers filled with fathers and sons, teenage girls, blue-collar families and devoted hecklers.

“Get a haircut, you hippie,” one fan yelled at Eric Byrnes, the Diamondbacks left fielder. When the verbal abuse became vulgar, Byrnes rested his glove and bare hand on his knees, bent over and wagged his backside.

“Don’t point that thing at me,” one of the hecklers yelled, and the five teenage girls sitting next to them giggled.

“This place lit up like a firecracker when Barry Bonds came to town,” Lopez said, referring to all-time home run king who played left field for the San Francisco Giants until this season. “There’s an electricity out here.”

But there’s also a reality at home, where Lopez rents a room in the house Vieyra shared with her late husband in Covina, a 25-minute drive from Dodger Stadium.

On May 1, the Dodgers face the Florida Marlins. That same day, Vieyra and Lopez face a dreaded deadline. The mortgage payment is due.

Sifting through her bills and bank account statements last week at her house, Vieyra looked like a baseball manager trying to fill out a lineup with only eight players.

Savings account balance: $422.99.

Baseball account balance: $682.95.

Monthly mortgage payment: $2,385.90.

“Even if we take money out of the baseball account, we won’t be able to pay the mortgage,” she said with a sigh. They considered selling their tickets on the Internet.

“But only for about five minutes,” Vieyra said.

Photo Vieyra collects recyclables at Dodger Stadium for cash.
(Jon Soo Hoo / Y! Sports)

Instead of abandoning the Dodgers, they will abandon plans to open a printing office outside their home. They figure they can get a two-month extension on the mortgage, which will give them time to sell printing equipment. For now, they will continue to outsource most of their orders to other printers and attend Dodger games.

They also will continue a postgame ritual that last week began the moment Reynolds whiffed at Saito’s pitch and the Dodgers clinched an 8-3 victory. Vieyra sought plastic bottles in the bleachers with the same intensity fans go after foul balls.

Later, in the parking lot, Vieyra stayed on foot searching for aluminum cans. Lopez climbed into their ’96 Dodge with 230,000 miles on the odometer and drove from one set of empty beer bottles to the next, stopping and placing the recyclables in the bed of the pickup truck.

Pregame drinking in the parking lot may be on the rise now that beers inside Dodger Stadium cost $10, and that’s good news for Lopez and Vieyra because they get 10 cents a pound for glass, 94 cents a pound for plastic and $1.81 a pound for aluminum. A full truck bed of cans and bottles can net $80 to $95.

After about an hour, with the truck bed half full, Vieyra climbed into the Dodge, and the couple drove to a nearby fast food restaurant. They parked in a dimly lit lot, where Lopez leveled the cans and bottles and hemmed them in with a net that would keep the recyclables from flying out of the truck bed. Vieyra walked through the parking lot, trying to add to their take.

Lopez fastened the last corner of the net and Vieyra strolled back to the truck beaming. She held up unclaimed treasure – a copper coin that bore image of Abraham Lincoln. The coin would end up in a jar the Double Coupon Queen and Lopez call their “baseball fund.”

For loyal sports fans hit hard by the economic downturn, every penny counts.