Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro said on Wednesday that he expects attendance to be down in 2019.
The Jays are in the midst of a rebuild and the club isn’t expected to compete for a playoff spot for at least two years, probably longer.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s down a little bit,” said Shapiro, during a gathering with the Toronto media to discuss the renovations to the club’s stadium and spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida. “But I don’t expect it to be down dramatically.”
Toronto home attendance dropped for the third straight year last season as the club’s stumbled to a 73-89 record. The Jays drew 2,325,281 fans to the Rogers Centre in 2018, down from 3,203,886 in 2017, about a 25% drop. They led the AL in attendance in 2016 and 2017.
But the 2019 season is going to be painful, as the organization will be fielding a young lineup and are going to play the hell out of their prospects against an American League East division that’s probably going to be even better than it was last year. There’s little to be optimistic about short-term, at least on the field. On the other hand, Shapiro doesn’t expect fans to completely bail on this team. Nor does he expect attendance to hit rock bottom and fall to the bottom third of the MLB.
“I still think you’ll find us somewhere in the middle (in attendance),” said Shapiro. “And for us to say that in our down years is nothing for us to be embarrassed of. Obviously if we draw 2.3 million fans (in 2019), or 2.2 million fans, that’s a number that’s going to put us in a very good place in Major League baseball.”
Shapiro said in any market, attendance mirrors the competitiveness of the team. But even if the Jays are sitting last in the AL East this upcoming season, he believes they’ll be in a better position attendance-wise than most. He said the addition of heralded prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. sometime in the 2019 season will give the attendance a bit of a bump. Guerrero is the most highly touted prospect in club history.
The good news, at least from an organization perspective — is that the organization’s OTHER rebuild — the spring training facility and stadium — will begin in January, 2019 — worth US$81 million — and should be ready for spring training in 2020.
The club’s stadium in Dunedin will be expanded to about 8,500 seats from the current 5,500 and the separate spring training facility — Bobby Mattick Training Center — will be expanded considerably and will include cutting edge training and rehab facilities.
“I think we’ll have the best overall (spring training) facility in baseball,” said Shapiro, adding that believes that a cutting edge spring training site will ultimately lead to more wins on the field in terms of players getting healthier quicker, player development, etc. The costs of the renovations of both the spring training facility and stadium will be split by the Jays (about $20 million plus any cost overruns), Pinellas County ($41 million) the city of Dunedin ($5.6 million) and the state of Florida ($13.7 million).
Shapiro was asked if there was any update on the status of grass eventually being put down in the Rogers Centre and while his answer was vague, it’s clear that grass will not be coming anytime soon, if at all. Shapiro said the cost of installing and maintaining grass at the Rogers Centre would cost tens of millions and would likely draw money from other departments, including player salaries. So at this point, it’s a non-starter. He added that with artificial turf getting better all the time, the difference between grass and turf isn’t that dramatic anymore.
Shapiro has been criticized since joining the club as president and CEO in Aug. 2015 of not being front and centre enough in terms of media and fan accessibility. But he said on Wednesday that he’s always open to talk, while pointing out that he does not want to step on GM Ross Atkins’ toes in terms of discussing player movement, etc. As for his popularity in Toronto, which has not always been high, the Cambridge, Mass., native said he has learned from his time in Cleveland not to let negative feedback get to him.
“I was talking about it last night at dinner that when we traded Bartolo Colon (in 2002 to the Montreal Expos), I had death threats. Literally,” said Shapiro. “The security guy in Cleveland said, ‘I don’t want you walking to lunch.’
“People were literally saying if we see you in a restaurant they’re going to tip over my table. And I just kind of look at it as you’re never as dumb as people think you are and you’re never as smart as when you’re winning Executive of the Year awards and they say you’re the best executive around,” Shapiro continued. “The job is to commit a sense of urgency and sense of drive to build a sustainable championship team and not worry being right along the way, but being right in the end. If you’re doing it for popularity, you’re going to have a short term existence.
“I’m more concerned with, ‘Do we have a good long-term plan? Do I have the respect and trust of the people I work with everyday? And are we moving towards the goal of putting a championship team on the field here?’ As long as I feel like we’re making progress to that goal, I feel like in the end (it will work out).”