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Empty Seats at Wrigley a Cause for Concern?

By Chuck Sudo in News on Apr 5, 2011 7:12PM

The announced attendance of 26,292 for yesterday's Cubs-Diamondbacks game was the lowest at Wrigley Field since September 2002. Back then, Kerry Wood was an oft-injured starting pitcher. Asked about the empty seats yesterday, Wood expressed some surprise. "It's a little strange seeing empty seats," Wood said. Given the low expectations for this Cubs team, we're assuming that some Cubs fans are concerned about more than just high beer prices. But is it time to panic (or gloat, as some sports talkers have done today)?

It's likely too soon for the Ricketts family to start crunching numbers and recalculating revenue projections. The Opening Day crowd of 41,358 declined to 35,782 for the Cubs' 5-3 come from behind win Saturday. Sunday's attendance sank further to 30,857. It could be a combination of non-marquee teams like the Pirates and Diamondbacks and (for yesterday's game, at least) inclement weather that's contributing to the Cubs' slow start at the gate.

But there have also been signs since last season's "Year One" campaign that the Rickettses may not be afforded the benefit of the doubt that seemed to elude the Tribune Co. during their ownership. The media synergy between Tribune Co. and the Cubs was such that the team itself often became an afterthought. Tribune Co. masterfully marketed "the Wrigley Field experience," even as Shawon Dunston sent routine groundouts sailing over Mark Grace's head into the grandstand, the bleachers went from being where the unemployed went to rip Lee Elia and Jim Frey to the marquee seats in the park and Sammy Sosa became a waterlogged teddy bear.

Or maybe this is the course correction everyone from White Sox fans to economists have been waiting for. The Cubs have actually been one of the more successful teams in baseball in the early 200s, despite not winning a league pennant and the masterful 2003 choke job. They've won three NL Central crowns in that span and posted five plus-.500 seasons, attracted big name free agents and superstar managers who tried to win a World Series for the Cubs. That has to raise the expectations of even the drunkest Hennemans among us. Eventually Cubs fans who truly care for the team will stop paying good money to see a team that lets them down all the time. And if they start winning, they'll come back to the Friendly Confines. White Sox fans have been using this policy for years.

Even Kerry Wood noted the change. "It's up to us to change that," he said yesterday.