The New York Yankees have stayed at or near the top this baseball season with journeymen and reclamation projects replacing injured All-Stars like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Their fans remain unimpressed.
While the Yankees’ 30-23 record is one win better than last season after 53 games, television ratings are down and attendance at Yankee Stadium has dropped almost 8 percent from a year ago. The team is also selling tickets at more than 50 percent off on the coupon website Groupon Inc.
With Jeter, Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira yet to play this season, Lyle Overbay, Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells have helped produce wins for a team with a $233 million opening-day payroll. The lack of star power, plus New York’s Knicks and Rangers making playoff runs in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, have combined to keep the team from capturing the hearts of local sports fans so far this season.
“The big question for fans is, ‘Do I watch a Yankee team win ball games, but do it with second- and third-tier players and rookies whose last names aren’t commonplace?” said Wayne McDonnell Jr., 36, an associate professor of sports management at New York University.
The Yankees drew an average of 38,035 fans through their first 25 home games this season, down from 40,950 through the same number of games a year ago. Television ratings on the Yankees Entertainment & Sports network are down 39 percent from the same point last season.
“There are a lot of factors involved,” Yankees co-owner Hal Steinbrenner told reporters on May 18. “I still think the economy is a big part of it. People are struggling out there.”
Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo said the team would have no further comment on attendance beyond what Steinbrenner discussed. Steinbrenner’s father, George, was known for saying fans turned out for stars and gave big contracts to players such as Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage and Dave Winfield.
Major League Baseball attendance is down by 631,077 from last year through games of May 29, with 19 of the 30 teams recording drops, according to baseball-reference.com
The Yankees have sold $46 tickets for $20 on Groupon, and discounted seats for games against the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox were sold for as low as $20 through a corporate perks program called Plum Benefits. Free tickets were given away this month at a frozen banana stand outside the stadium that was part of a promotion with the television program “Arrested Development.”
McDonnell, who created the “Business of Baseball” course at NYU, said he expects to see the Yankees’ attendance and TV ratings bounce back as baseball swings into summer and some of the team’s injured All-Stars return from the disabled list.
The Yankees host the American League East-leading Red Sox at home this weekend after losing four straight games to the Mets. There are 382 tickets for tonight’s game available on the secondary market, according to TiqIQ, with prices ranging from $21 to $1,058.
The season began for the Yankees with Jeter, Rodriguez, Teixeira and Curtis Granderson -- who are being paid about $84 million in combined 2013 salary -- on the disabled list with injuries. Kevin Youkilis, Francisco Cervelli and Ivan Nova joined them. Granderson, who led the team in home runs last season, came back for eight games, then broke a finger and will be out for a month. Teixeira and Youkilis are scheduled to return tonight for the Yankees.
The injured players represent 25 All-Star appearances. Wells, 34, was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for two minor-leaguers the week before the season started. Hafner, 35, was signed by the Yankees for $2 million after the Cleveland Indians bought out his contract. Overbay, 36, was without a team when given a minor-league deal by the Yankees, who will pay him $1.25 million this season.
Together, the trio has combined for 26 homers and 79 runs batted in. The team’s only holdover with more homers or RBIs than those three is All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano.
“We have a lot of really good players, maybe not the names we’re used to having here, but guys who have had big years,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi, 48, told reporters this month, before the team slipped to second place in the division. “This group has worked really hard.”
Jayson Nix, David Adams and Brennan Boesch are among the other players who have filled in for the Yankees, who trail Boston by two games after their recent slide.
“When you lose that many superstar players, you expect if they could play close to .500 or a couple games under and hang in there until the rest of their guys got back you’d be very happy,” said Larry Bowa, 67, a former Yankees’ coach now an analyst for MLB Network. “It’s incredible what they’re doing considering the offense they did lose.”
While getting injured stars back may help the Yankees’ ticket sales and TV ratings, the end of relief pitcher Mariano Rivera’s 19-year Hall-of-Fame career will also have an effect, McDonnell said. Rivera, who has the most saves in baseball history, missed almost all of last season after tearing a ligament in his right knee and has announced this is his last year pitching.
“When the summer comes and people come to the realization that we’re not going to be able to see him much longer, you’re going to see changes in attendance and television ratings,” McDonnell said. “I’m one who will look after Memorial Day as the biggest gauge for television ratings, attendance, statistics, everything like that.”
So is Steinbrenner.
“Summer is coming around, warmer weather, and we have a lot of half-price ticket days and $5 ticket days; things we have done for years,” he said. “I think the fans are going to come out and are going to support these guys because they have earned it.”
Expectations may also increase when Jeter, Teixeira, Youkilis and possibly Rodriguez eventually rejoin the lineup.
“There’s going to be a little bit of heat on them when they come back because the team has played so well with these extra guys,” said Bowa, a former Philadelphia Phillies manager who was a coach with the Yankees in 2006-07. “If you asked every one of those guys who are out if they thought they’d be here, I’m sure most of them would say, “No, but we’ll take it.”
-- With assistance from Scott Soshnick in New York. Editors: Michael Sillup, Larry Siddons