By: Will Burchfield
The Tigers have sold out their home opener each of the past 13 seasons and, despite a bevy of tickets to Friday’s game being available on the team’s website, will extend that streak this year, per team spokesman Ron Colangelo.
The Tigers open play at Comerica Park on Friday afternoon versus the Red Sox.
As of Tuesday morning, scads of tickets remained for purchase in almost every section of the ballpark, including the infield boxes surrounding home plate. Perhaps more surprising, as many as six tickets could be purchased together, the limit for the home opener.
Rarely in seasons past have this many tickets been available so close to the home opener.
So — what’s up?
According to Colangelo, the tickets currently available on the team’s website were originally set aside for corporate sponsors, suite-holders and MLB employees, among others. When said tickets weren’t spoken for, the Tigers made them available to the fans.
Colangelo added that the initial batch of tickets, which went for sale on March 4, sold out in a mere half hour.
“Friday’s game,” he said, “will be a sellout.”
The Tigers have attracted a capacity crowd to their home opener in every season since 2004 and 13 of their 16 seasons at Comerica Park.
Still, there are some unsettling trends in regard to the team’s attendance.
The Tigers drew their smallest crowds in six years in 2016, finishing 13th in the league with 31,173 fans per game. That comprised just 75 percent of Comerica Park’s capacity — in other words, a quarter of the ballpark was empty for last season’s typical home game.
Consider this: In 2015, when the Tigers finished last in the A.L. Central, they drew about 2,500 fans more per game than in 2016, when they were in the playoff race until the final game of the season. Last year marked the organization’s lowest attendance in a winning since 1993.
(There are various ways to measure a team’s popularity, of course. Colangelo pointed out that the Tigers experienced a year-over-year increase in both local TV ratings and merchandise sales in 2016.)
Some of the factors that placed a drag on last season’s attendance could similarly affect this year’s. Three, in particular: the disappointment of Tigers teams past, diminishing faith in the club’s current core and a passive skipper whose fan-approval rating leaves much to be desired.
But most damning of all, it may turn out, is the sense that the Tigers are abandoning their win-at-all-costs philosophy. General manager Al Avila made some foreboding comments when last season came to a close, which painted the picture of a not-so-inspiring new era. And though Avila softened his stance as the offseason wore on and held off on any kind of big salary dump – Detroit’s payroll is actually up from last season – the feeling remains that the Tigers aren’t gunning for a championship the way they used to.
That former owner Mike Ilitch, a beloved free-spender, passed away in February likely adds to the fans’ premonitions of change and austerity. The Tigers were committed to tightening things up either way, but the death of Ilitch seems to make things more stark, more absolute. It can be construed, for wrong or right, as the end of a Tigers era.
Fans want to believe in their team. They want to believe in the organization they support. If they don’t – worse, if they can’t – they won’t show up in the same numbers. That might lead to thinner crowds than usual this season at Comerica Park. If so, it’ll be up to the Tigers to lure them back.
Note: Story was updated to reflect the fact that the Tigers recently released more tickets for Friday’s game and that the team expects a capacity crowd.