Strong Blue Jays attendance leads to complicated off-season

Buffalo Bisons play-by-play voice Ben Wagner gives Baseball Central a couple of players that he sees as future Blue Jays leaders on the field and off.

A lot has gone wrong on the field this season for the Toronto Blue Jays. But for all that struggle and strife, a bright spot remains at the turnstiles.

The Jays are first in the American League in attendance, averaging 39,326 with this weekend’s series remaining. If one presumes a strong turnout for Jose Bautista’s final series, the numbers will approach last season’s 3,392,099 in total attendance, but still sit about 200,000 fans short of that most recent high-water mark.

These numbers obviously don’t account for the strong turnout of Blue Jays fans in other cities, especially in Seattle, which has become essentially another home series. Strong turnouts in Minnesota and Chicago also demonstrate the nationwide interest that has been enlivened in recent years.

TV ratings also remain strong, though they have understandably fallen behind last season’s post-season chase.

As minds turn from the conclusion of this year’s on-field campaign to the road ahead, there are existential questions that must grip the Blue Jays brain trust: Is it good news that this is the second-best year for the business of the team in recent memory? Or is it concerning that this year’s modest declines from those heights may be part of a trend?

If there is a broader, sweeping generalization that one can make based on the past few seasons, it’s that the success of the business is fundamentally dependent on the success of the team on the field. Without the excitement of the historic last two months of 2015 plus the playoffs, the team today would probably draw closer to what it had in from 2012 through 2015, roughly a million fewer fans to stadium, and fewer eyeballs on screens all around.

Selling hope will get you to one point, but selling success – even with qualifications – will put you over the top.

This will make the coming months among the most fascinating for Jays observers, as the team attempts to keep its short-term competitive window open a crack without losing sight of the long-term goals of ongoing competitiveness.

In some ways, this is not remarkably different from the quandary in which the team found itself last off-season. There were questions as to whether the window closed after 2016 with Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion heading into free agency, but there was enough legitimate talent to make Toronto’s off-season moves immediately relevant.

Hindsight being what it is, those off-season moves at the margins didn’t sufficiently prepare the team for the challenges of this season, though with Aaron Sanchez missing most of the year and many veterans missing considerable time, it’s hard to say what could have.

Still, the stakes have been raised somewhat on the front office to have a more successful run over this winter in patching around a core of veterans, especially Josh Donaldson, in the last season of his current commitment to Toronto.

It’s said that Jays president Mark Shapiro is a consumer of books on business management theory, and it is a fair bet that he’s consumed Jim Collins’ celebrated business tome, Good to Great.

Collins puts forward the concept of the “Flywheel Effect” in that book. This refers to the idea that a business doesn’t become successful through isolated dramatic gestures, but rather, the ongoing and contributing effects of many actions as part of a committed process. “Steadfast discipline over the quick fix,” as Collins says.

With everything that Shapiro outlined in his interview this week with Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt on Sportsnet The Fan 590, this disciplined approach seems to be the current administration’s modus operandi.

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The Jeff Blair Show
Mark Shapiro: 2018 presents similar situation as 2017
Originally aired September 20 2017

But the need to accumulate visible results is a key aspect of this business theory. For people to appreciate and buy in to the process, they need to see tangible indications that this approach is working. People need to feel the excitement before they truly align their motivations to yours.

In the context of the Blue Jays, fans legitimately embracing the team means more bums in seats and eyeballs on screens, which creates a virtuous circle of more resources and capacity to improve the fundamentals of the business and the team. Success propels momentum forward toward more success.

This season has clearly been a setback from that point of view. The fundamentals of the business may be stronger, but they are more remote, further down the road, and harder to embrace.

This isn’t to say that the off-season should be about creating a splash on the free agent market to demonstrate an exciting direction, at least for 2018. Such an approach has proved to be the undoing of many MLB franchises, in fact. But as there are gaps in the roster, each acquisition and roster move will bear some additional scrutiny. Does this player help now? Do they help or hinder down the road?

In a highly competitive environment, the Jays will need to provide fans with clear indications that they are on the right track this off-season, with an ability to bridge to the next generation of star players. If they can’t, and if there are fewer resources to work with, the equation will not be “good to great,” but rather, “more with less.”