As Alex Gordon’s game-winning home run sailed over the fence on Tuesday night, Kim Clawson shook her husband, Kevin, in excitement.
From their home in Topeka.
The Clawsons have attended some 25 Royals games at Kauffman Stadium this season and made it over for Wednesday’s game against the Twins. But they weren’t there the previous day to watch Gordon’s heroics or hear what manager Ned Yost had to say about the announced attendance of 13,847.
The crowd was more than 10,000 below the team’s season average and the smallest since May 15. It left the most empty seats in the 37,903-seat stadium since the Royals started making their move this month to first place in the American League Central standings.
Yost and the players noticed. After the game, Yost took a swipe — “I mean, what, 13,000 got to see a great game” — and Gordon joked that maybe Royals fans were home with fatigue after cheering for Derek Jeter on Monday night. In that game, Jeter, the Yankees star shortstop, made his final regular-season appearance in Kansas City before more than 31,000 fans.
Yost’s comments touched a nerve and fans reacted strongly. How dare a manager in his fifth season in Kansas City call out the fans who, at 28 years, are suffering through the longest postseason drought in any of the four major North American sports? The Royals haven’t played a playoff game since winning the World Series in 1985.
Others agreed with Yost. When the paltry attendance figure was announced, derision spread across baseball. Kansas City’s credibility as a baseball town was questioned, even if attendance at Kauffman Stadium, on average, is up compared with last season and on pace for the club’s best since 1994.
Hey, the Detroit Tigers attracted more than 40,000 for their game against the Yankees on Tuesday and they’re chasing the Royals in the standings.
No booing was detected when Yost’s name was called during lineup introductions Wednesday. Before the game, he said he wasn’t going for the fans’ jugular. He just wanted a better atmosphere for his team.
“It definitely has an effect,” Yost said. “When our fans are screaming and yelling, the energy that’s provided on the field, it’s a buzz you feel internally and it does give you a bit of a boost.”
Royals general manager Dayton Moore came to Yost’s defense earlier Wednesday.
“I know Ned’s heart and I know ours,” Moore told The Star. “We love our fans. We’re very appreciative for their great support. I’ve been on record with that since I got here. That’s why I came here, to build something for our fans.”
There were plenty of reasons for empty seats on a Tuesday night in late August, fans and team officials said.
“I can see why it was a low crowd,” Kevin Clawson said. “It was a school night, a lot of people travel to get here, and the economy can still make things tough.”
All valid reasons, said Royals vice president for business operations Kevin Uhlich. And there are more. Tuesday is typically a T-shirt giveaway night. The last “T-shirt Tuesday,” on Aug. 12, helped produce a crowd of 27,161.
Yet, interest in the team belies Tuesday’s attendance.
Overall, crowds are bigger at Kauffman Stadium this year even if they are slightly smaller across baseball.
The Royals are averaging 23,353 fans per game through 64 home dates after a crowd of 17,688 watched them beat the Twins 6-1 on Wednesday. It’s the best average since the team drew 24,570 per game in the strike-shortened 1994 season. That’s an increase of 1,512 over the average from last season, when the Royals posted their first winning record in a decade and chased a playoff spot until the final week.
The average per-game attendance in all of major-league baseball was 30,450 through Tuesday, down from 30,684 in 2013.
Uhlich expects the Royals’ season attendance for 2014 to be around 1.9 million. The last year the Royals drew that many was 1993, George Brett’s final season.
It may not sound like a stampede of fans to watch winning baseball, and 24 of baseball’s 30 teams are averaging more fans than the Royals. The teams at the top of the attendance charts — the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants — all have division championships in the last two years.
A better comparison to the Royals is the Pittsburgh Pirates. Long a doormat in the National League, the Pirates broke through in 2013 with their first playoff season in two decades and drew 2.2 million. This year, with a playoff bounce, Pittsburgh, in a small market like Kansas City, is on pace to average 2.3 million.
Also, the Royals continue to move the needle in television ratings. The team owns a 6.2 season rating on games televised by Fox Sports Kansas City, slightly below last year’s 6.4 rating, which represents what percentage of TV households were watching a program. But there’s an entire month of pennant-race viewing remaining.
Television frequency must also be considered. This year, a record 150 Royals games are televised. In 1989, when the Royals set their team attendance record by drawing 2.4 million, the team broadcast 52 games on its network.
“It used to be if you wanted to see the team, you had to buy a ticket,” Uhlich said. “That’s no longer the case. You can say home and watch it on HDTV.
“It’s such a different day and age when it comes to the way people spend their time and money, and families’ lives change once kids go back to school.”
But Uhlich said he can hardly go anywhere without talking about the Royals.
“Every place you go, it’s what you hear,” he said. “The passion is here.”