Blue Jays draw 3 million in attendance for first time since 1993

Toronto Blue Jays fans cheering (Paul Sancya/AP)

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays crossed the 3 million mark in attendance Tuesday night, a threshold they last reached in 1993. By the time all is said and done in 2016, they will have at least the sixth-best total gate in franchise history, with a shot at the fifth spot.

Getting there is no surprise – club president and CEO Mark Shapiro said they’re already at 3.3 million sold – but given the questions raised during some of the team’s lean years, lowlighted by the 1,495,482 drawn in 2010, there were doubts the numbers would ever be so high again.

“It’s a reflection of the intensity of the fan base,” Shapiro says of breaking three million. “For me, being here every night, it’s almost hard to appreciate it. You get a night like [Monday], where we’re under 40,000, and you almost note that more. But there’s also a constant reminder of how important it is to maintain that covenant, that it’s a two-way relationship, it’s not just the fans’ undying support, it’s for a team that plays the game a certain way, competes and contends at a certain level as well.

“So to me, I look at those things as fuel for our side of the covenant.”

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The corresponding piece to the club side of the covenant is its payroll, and this off-season presents an important litmus test for the organization with longtime icons like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion headed to free agency.

Fans will want to see the team spend money and bring both players back, especially given that last month the Blue Jays announced an average price increase of nine per cent on early-bird season-ticket renewals. On Tuesday, they announced a restructuring of their popular flex-pack packages in line with their move toward increase use of dynamic pricing.

As prices rise, people tend to expect a reciprocal investment in the roster.

“[Attendance] is a positive indicator on where we’ll be next year but that off-season planning process is not a simple process,” says Shapiro. “It’s a multi-pronged process that initially just involves internal meetings, meetings with player development, amateur and pro scouts, meeting with our major-league staff and then meeting with our front office to lay out a plan. And that plan, to me, would have a set of alternative payrolls and the implications involved with the types of teams those payrolls would support. Then it’s going and making a presentation to the ownership group here on what the implications are of different payroll levels, the projected revenue and collectively coming up with where we end up.”

Their payroll this year is believed to be creeping toward the $150 million range.

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Known as the SkyDome back then, the Rogers Centre hosted its first baseball game on June 5, 1989, a marvel of its time with a first-of-its-kind retractable roof. Leaving dumpy and utilitarian Exhibition Stadium for the gleaming dome was like moving from a soiled refrigerator box to a mansion.

Now, however, Rogers Centre is the seventh oldest stadium in the majors and all the others – save for the decrepit Oakland Coliseum – have undergone substantial renovations. The Rogers Centre looks reasonably good for its age, though as a multipurpose facility it’s a relic of a bygone era, the ballpark game forever changed by the 1992 opening of retro-styled Camden Yards in Baltimore, a true gem to this day.

Either way, the dome needs an update, one that will “re-envision the building for the next 30 years,” according to Shapiro.

To that end, the Blue Jays have already “gone through initial presentations from a design firm to come up with concepts of where the greatest opportunities lie,” says Shapiro. They’ve done an “intensive” study of their fans, examined the dome’s infrastructure and the lifespan of its various systems and will eventually pick a design firm to work with.

At that point, explains Shapiro, “there will be a six-month process to go and look at trends, look at opportunities, understand how that fits into our marketplace and understand the building and where the greatest opportunities lie here.”

The infrastructure in place is relatively sound, Shapiro says, more so than one might think give the building’s age. Priorities include updating scoreboards and sound systems.

“Those are definitely things that’ll be addressed,” he says. “To me, the most important piece is looking at it comprehensively. What kind of views of the field do people have when they’re on the concourses? How wide are the concourses? Where are the opportunities to create spaces? There are a lot of spaces in the ballpark. How can we orient the stands to best take advantage of a baseball experience? Those are all questions that we have to ask and experts have to guide us through.”

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Paul Beeston, Shapiro’s predecessor, often floated the idea of a natural grass field in time for the 2018 season. He approved the commissioning of a study by experts at the University of Guelph to determine what it would take to retrofit the dome so it could sustain a grass field.

The results so far?

“It’s an ongoing study and continues to be on the table,” says Shapiro.

What are the early indications?

“Just that we need to study it more to understand the precise implications of cost and building design.”

The departure of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts to a refurbished BMO Field allowed the Blue Jays to install a dirt infield around the FieldTurf artificial playing surface in time for this year.

Given the bigger-picture possibilities in play, the current field may be what the stadium rolls with for years to come.

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In 1991, the Blue Jays became the first big-league franchise to break the 4 million mark in attendance, drawing 4,001,526, then attracting 4,028,318 in 1992 and a team high 4,057,947 in ’93. That year, the expansion Colorado Rockies, playing at Mile High Stadium, attracted a big-league record 4,483,350 fans. The New York Yankees (four times, most recently in 2008) and New York Mets (once) are the only other franchises to break 4 million.

The Blue Jays entered Tuesday with their attendance at 2,988,267 and their gate of 38,338 against the Tampa Bay Rays pushed them to 3,026,605, the sixth-best total in team history. Depending on the final numbers for their final eight home games of the year go – Wednesday’s finale against the Rays and then four games with the Yankees and three against the Orioles to close out the home schedule – they may surpass the 3,375,883 drawn in 1989 for the franchise’s fifth-best total.

“I thought we crossed the threshold of how incredible the support and the fan base is earlier in the season, in contrast to what I’ve experienced [in Cleveland],” says Shapiro. “When you pull back and take a moment to reflect, the numbers are staggering. The support is overwhelming. Again, I would just reinforce that to me, it just fuels the desire and the need to continue to fulfil our end of the covenant.”