Sam Mellinger

Royals fans are showing their passion for team

Royals fans had plenty to cheer after a 5-3 win over the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals fans had plenty to cheer after a 5-3 win over the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

They stand with signs and moose antlers and cameras and the first pitch isn't for another two hours. Eric Hosmer is in the batting cage, and he is swinging hard. The ball jumps off his bat and over the wall. It bounces off an ad sign.

He steps out of the cage and the fans standing behind the Royals dugout scream. The noise seems to surprise him. He turns around and smiles. Waves. In his place goes Mike Moustakas and here come more long fly balls over the fence at Kauffman Stadium.

By now, Moustakas knows what to expect, so when he walks out of the cage he waves to the fans and laughs and when is the last time anything like this happened here?

Fans showing up hours early, to cheer batting practice? On a weekday in May?

“They come with it, man,” says pitcher Danny Duffy. “We're lucky to have the fan base we have.”

That's never been truer than this season, and the word never is used here intentionally and without hyperbole.

The Royals announced a crowd of 29,099 for a weeknight game against a last-place team in May on Tuesday night. That brought their season total to 431,652 tickets sold, which is an average of 30,832 – a 51 percent jump over last year at the same point.

That's a pace that would break the franchise record of 2,477,700 set back in 1989. It would also be the biggest single-season increase since 1973, their first in what was originally Royals Stadium.

“I'm not surprised, just because I know the passion of our fans,” general manager Dayton Moore says. “I notice it every day.”

Moore and other executives are on an email list that includes daily updates on attendance projections when the Royals are at home. This is of particular importance for Moore and the front office, more important to the Royals than virtually any other team in baseball.

The Royals have the rest of this season and four more on what might be the sport's worst television contract, a deal that pays them a fraction of the current market value even as ratings regularly set records.

The Royals are also playing on a franchise record payroll of $112 million. So for spending to stay at that level – or increase, which is what it will take to keep the current core intact – the Royals need the attendance figures to stay up.

Other teams can supplement spending with growing money from TV, but for the Royals, ticket and in-stadium revenue are critical to their ability to compete.

Which is why the attendance has been so encouraging. This past winter, the club's business folks projected attendance would jump from 1,956,482 in 2014 to around 2.1 million in 2015.

Already, they have adjusted that to 2.3 million on the low end and 2.5 million if the summer goes as they hope.

It is a franchise-altering shift. Season tickets are up more than 30 percent, and Royals employees have grown used to telling even friends and family not to ask for tickets on the weekends. Companies that keep season tickets for employees have gone from not being able to give the seats away to waiting lists.

One of the pervading truths of sports business is that teams always see big bumps the year after on-field success. The Royals, for instance, drew more fans for the 76-win season in 1986 than the world championship team in 1985.

But this also goes deeper than that, tapping into a baseball passion in Kansas City that's been suppressed for decades. There have been glimpses of that here, most notably the All-Star Game in 2012, when even the Futures Game was sold out.

Some inside the organization believe the energy that weekend – remember Robinson Cano? – helped persuade David Glass to spend more on the team. There are other factors involved, of course, but payroll went from $68.6 million in 2012 to $86.6 million in 2013 and $97.7 million last year.

With the Royals, the relationship between attendance and payroll has to be particularly close.

The attendance numbers so far are driven by a lot of factors, even beyond the run to last year's World Series. Most importantly, they are winning. Nearly as importantly, the weather has been close to perfect (at least until Wednesday night). The opponents have been good draws, too, particularly the A's after last year's Wild Card game and the division rival Tigers.

But even taking all of that into account, the numbers are fairly amazing. In past years, the club's business folks would often talk about hoping the team was competitive once school let out to draw bigger crowds. Now, the team is drawing nearly 30,000 on a weeknight. They've yet to have a crowd under 20,000; at this point last year, they had six under 14,000.

This is a fun story in any context. Before Tuesday's game, Royals assistant coach Rusty Kuntz was telling a story about driving around town with his wife looking for ideas on how to landscape their house. Kuntz ended up noticing all of the Royals flags hanging by front doors.

But for the Royals, the attendance means more. Years ago, some players would quietly complain about the small crowds. Now, there is at least a little bit of awe in Duffy's voice as he talks of the crowd at the Wild Card game making the noise of 150,000 people.

The trick for the Royals is to turn this into a trend that feeds on itself. Not just in making Kansas City a more fun place to play, but in giving the team more money to sign and keep better players. So far, the attendance has been better than anyone expected.

The Royals have had a lot of that lately, when you think about it.

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