For the Toronto Blue Jays this season, there was no place like home. Not just because of their success on the field -- their record at the Toronto SkyDome was 44-37 -- but because of their success off it.
Toronto finished second to the Boston Red Sox in the American League's East, but the team ran away with major league baseball's attendance championship.
Boosted by their success on the field, a national following in Canada and the novelty of the SkyDome -- with its retractable roof and hotel behind the center field fence -- the Blue Jays shattered the American League single-season attendance record this year by drawing an astounding 3,885,284 fans.
The Blue Jays sold out the last 60 games of their 81-date home season, and only the lingering effects of the early season lockout kept the team from drawing 4 million fans in an era in which season attendance of 3 million is considered extraordinary. Among the other 25 major league teams, only the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets came close to the 3 million mark this season.
By comparison, the other 13 American League teams averaged about 2 million apiece, and Toronto's season attendance was almost twice that of the New York Yankees, once one of baseball's biggest draws. The Blue Jays drew four times as many fans as the Atlanta Braves, whose attendance was under 1 million, and drew more than 1 million more fans than have attended Braves games in the past three years put together.
In a stadium with a seating capacity of 50,516, Toronto averaged just under 48,000 fans a game, selling out the stadium 67 times. The team's lowest single-game attendance came at an April game against the Cleveland Indians, when 34,139 fans showed up -- more than most teams in baseball averaged this year.
"When they were building the stadium, they told us they might draw 4 million, and we scoffed," said Baltimore Orioles President Larry Lucchino, who now is a believer. "It's the Eighth Wonder of the World, and people go see the Eighth Wonder of the World."
"Toronto, if they had a bigger stadium, probably could have sold more tickets this year," said Steven J. Matt, an appraiser of sports teams for Arthur Andersen & Co. in Dallas. "The typical team in baseball doesn't have a capacity problem."
Toronto is ringing up big numbers at the gate even though the Canadian city is not one of baseball's bigger markets. In the past, the teams with the highest attendance have tended to be located in New York or Los Angeles, or have been winning or defending world championships, such as Oakland this season and the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins in recent years.
But baseball experts say Toronto's success is the result of several factors all becoming positive at the same time. Fans' interest in seeing the SkyDome was an obvious attraction, as was the team's ability to stay in the AL East race until the end. The team also has become a popular phenomenon in Canada in a way that the older Montreal Expos have not. And its fan base covers a wide territory in Canada and U.S. border states such as New York.
"Toronto ended up with the best of both worlds: a new state-of-the-art facility and strong on-the-field performance," Matt said. "That's the maximum possibility if you want to maximize your attendance."
"It's the stadium, and obviously a well-run operation and a club that has been a strong contender now for a number of years. It appears to be a prosperous market," said Tal Smith, a long-time baseball executive who now is a consultant to several teams.
Toronto's success is likely to pay off on the bottom line, as well. Although local broadcast fees usually are the biggest variable in baseball team revenue, attendance as large Toronto's can make a big difference. With an average ticket price of $11.17, Toronto this season will bring in more than $20 million more than the average major league team -- a big difference when average team revenue is around $40 million.
It's not clear whether Toronto's attendance record is a one-time phenomenon, or whether the team can exceed it. Although Toronto's attendance rose steadily even before the team moved into the SkyDome in the middle of the 1989 season, the novelty of the SkyDome might wear off, or the team might be less successful on the field.
But the Blue Jays' success has inspired officials at other teams, who are hoping the same combination of new stadiums and winning teams can work for them. "I think you can get equally dramatic increases in atendance with a new state-of-the-art facility," Matt said. "That's not an opportunity that comes along very often."
The Chicago White Sox this year reversed several seasons of poor attendance as the surprise success of their young players and nostalgia for the soon-to-be-razed Comiskey Park brought in more than 2 million paying customers, and the opening of the new Comiskey Park next year is likely to sustain that attendance.
And the Orioles -- who drew more than 2.4 million fans this year -- are hoping the same phenomenon will apply to them when they close down Memorial Stadium next season and move in 1992 to the new Camden Yards ballpark, already being hailed as an architectural wonder. "We're hopeful that the new stadium will generate a great deal of interest," Lucchino said.