By: Will Burchfield
The Detroit Tigers are in the thick of a playoff race, but you wouldn’t know that down at Comerica Park. Given the sparse crowds and quiet atmosphere, it feels more like the hometown ball club is playing out the string.
On Monday night against the Indians, in the first game of allegedly the biggest series of the year, the Tigers drew a paltry crowd of 24, 981. And a sizeable portion of it seemed to consist of fans from out of state. Pockets of red jerseys stood out against empty green seats and discernible cheers filled the air when the visiting team scored.
Tuesday wasn’t much better.
If the Tigers are going quietly into the night, so are their fans, a fitting end to what’s been a shabby year for attendance at Comerica Park.
With an average of 31, 298 fans per game, the Tigers are drawing their smallest crowds in six years. Sure, that number still ranks in the upper half of the league (13th overall), but the troubling aspect of Detroit’s attendance is how it compares to seasons past.
The Tigers attracted over 37,000 fans per game from 2012-2014, peaking in 2013 with an average of 38,067. Even last year, when they finished last in the A.L. Central, the Tigers’ per-game attendance was about 2,500 fans higher than it is this year. The Tigers have been in legitimate playoff contention this season for as long as anyone’s been keeping track and the fans simply haven’t responded.
2016 will mark the organization’s lowest attendance in a winning season in 23 years, when the 1993 team drew about 24,000 fans per game to…Tiger Stadium.
Naturally, this begs the question: why?
There’s the annual effect of the school year resuming, which has likely contributed to smaller mid-week crowds during the month of September. But that doesn’t account for diminished attendance throughout the summer. What’s more, the Tigers’ relevance in the playoff race would figure to offset any decline in the number of family outings to the ballpark.
There’s the fact that they’re playing Cleveland at the moment, a team that has tortured the Tigers all season long. Perhaps fans are wary of taking in another loss at the hands of a division rival. But attendance wasn’t much better over the weekend against the Kansas City Royals and it was downright brutal in the series before that against the Minnesota Twins – who, by the way, the Tigers made mincemeat of throughout the season.
There’s the team’s erratic level of play, which has left fans scratching their heads in terms of what to expect next. Every surge this season has been followed up by a discouraging skid, the Tigers’ playoff prospects swinging wildly between hopeful and bleak. Maybe the fans, fed up with the inconsistency, have deserted the bandwagon for good. But if there was ever a time to rally behind this team, wouldn’t it be now, with the Tigers fighting for their life?
There’s the disappointment of seasons past, namely four straight playoff defeats from 2011 to 2014. Since being swept in the 2012 World Series, the Tigers have been on a steady downward trend, culminating in last season’s last-place finish. Are the fans scarred from the heartbreaks of yesteryear? Or have they simply given up hope on this core of players, convinced that it’s not meant to be?
And then there’s this: though Tigers fans have a history of doubting the team’s manager, the unrest surrounding Brad Ausmus seems to be at an all-time high. He is crushed for his decision-making and railed against for his bullpen-management. Perhaps most damning of all, he is chastised for his perceived sense of apathy, with some fans feeling that he just doesn’t care. Some of this is justified, a lot of it isn’t, but ultimately that’s irrelevant. What matters is the fan base is fed up, and attendance is down as a result.
With two home games remaining, the Tigers would surely like all the support they can get. They’re one game out of the playoffs and desperate for wins. But if they look into the stands tonight and tomorrow and find swaths of empty seats, they can blame an up-and-down season, a rash of recent playoff failures and a manager whose support has run dry.