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Attendance problem? Red Sox will grin and beard it

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  September 18, 2013 10:43 AM

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Even as the Red Sox soar, they sink to depths.

In case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the attendance at Fenway lately, there actually may be a few oblivious folks out there, the Red Sox are on the cusp of their first playoff berth in four years, the longest drought for Boston in a decade. The team may win 100 games for the first time in more than a half-century, and possesses a pitching staff that can go toe-to-toe with any other competitor in the American League East. By the time all is said and done at the end of the regular season, they very well may be the favorites to win their third World Series in 10 years.

And yet, the team is reduced to “Dollar Beard Night?”

Wednesday’s promotion, in which any fan who shows up at Fenway with a beard, real or fake, receives a $1 ticket to the game against the Orioles (which could end up clinching a Boston playoff spot) is fun, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the sort of thing that happens in Lowell, Toledo, and any other minor league outpost where such campaigns are the norm. In Boston? On the cusp of the American League East title? It’s just sort of … well, embarrassing, isn’t it?

Even in a pennant race, this sort of thing might fly with little question in places like Kansas City, Oakland, and Tampa Bay, but at the confines of Fenway Park, it serves as further question as to why attendance is down even as the Sox have delivered an unexpected season for the ages. Then again, isn’t such an admission more refreshing than being sold some lie about a “distribution streak?”

What’s most concerning about the whole thing though is the lack of appeal that is apparently perceived from this team, even as it remains the most appealing the Hub has seen since the 2004 Idiots rammed their historic ways into our hearts. Yet the lack of an outright MVP candidate, Cy Young Award winner, or future Hall of Famer makes the team less appetizing for the common fan, the fringe the team catered to for years in search of ratings and its almighty “sellout streak.” With the lack of an offseason free agent “splash,” that core group has stayed away this season, likely turned off by the Pavlovian spark to purchase tickets last December, while many other hardcore fans remain turned off by bricks, “At Fenway,” “Sweet Caroline,” and the mere fact that the front office resembled the Big Dig fix-it fund for far too many seasons.

Things couldn’t be better for a Boston baseball fan these days. But from a NESN ratings and ticket sale perspective, there’s a ways to go in the wake of the last 24 months. Which do you think will win out in the end?

Tuesday night’s game against the Orioles, a Baltimore 3-2 win that proved Koji Uehara human after all, boasted an announced attendance of 35,030, about 2,500 short of Fenway’s capacity. That’s nothing to snort at, of course, but at the outset of the game, the stands more resembled a “sellout” in the final month of Bobby Valentine’s regime rather than a team that could have clinched a playoff spot with a win and a Kansas City loss. The Sox have played to 94 percent capacity at home this season, significantly down from last season’s 101.4, a number nobody truly believes, nor should they. Only San Francisco and St. Louis have played to higher capacities at home, but numbers are down across baseball. How about the Yankees at 80 percent at Yankee Stadium? Cleveland, which is one-half game out of the second wild card spot at 44.7 percent, dead last in Major League Baseball? Egads.

Cleveland, which has seen a Renaissance this season under Terry Francona, is averaging 19,435 fans at Jacobs Field this season compared to 19,797 last season when the Indians finished 68-94. Boston is averaging 34,823 fans in 2013, when we’re led to believe the number was 37,567 last season. The point is, this isn’t only a Boston thing, so let’s stop trying to portray the fan base as gone and long forgotten.

Tickets are expensive, TV is better, and the youth just aren’t into baseball. All valid excuses as to why attendance is down in the game. In the case of the Red Sox though, maybe it boils down to this: Are you going to spend money on parking, tickets, concessions, and whatnot for a midweek game against the Orioles, or plunk it down in a few weeks for the ALDS? Seems an easy answer.

But as long as you can handle the buck, you and your beard have a good time. Granted, it’s probably $9 less than you might have paid all season at the legalized scalper down the block, but at least you can take solace in the fact that the evening serves as a grand admission that you were hoodwinked for years into thinking Fenway was the toughest ticket in town.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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