Sam Mellinger

If a Royals game happens and nobody’s there, what does it mean for the future?

Royals manager Ned Yost doesn’t have time for frustration

Royals manager Ned Yost stood behind his bullpen despite a five-game losing streak during which opponents have taken the lead in the seventh inning or later in four of those games. He spoke following a loss at Comerica Park on April 6, 2019.
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Royals manager Ned Yost stood behind his bullpen despite a five-game losing streak during which opponents have taken the lead in the seventh inning or later in four of those games. He spoke following a loss at Comerica Park on April 6, 2019.

Whit Merrifield’s hit streak died on Thursday, but he did preserve another streak: one more day of earnestly telling reporters the Royals’ season won’t continue to be this bad.

And he’s right!

On the day Merrifield finally did not collect a hit, the Royals were on pace to lose 135 games. That would be, like, a record.

But the more relevant point is this: Two weeks in, the 2019 Royals already have their Chip Ambres Moment.

Because if the Royals end up even close to as bad as they’ve begun, this group will be remembered by this moment on Thursday — a fly ball, should be caught, Merrifield pumping his fist in celebration of the presumed last out, only to see the ball bang off Billy Hamilton’s glove and the tying run score.

Literally adding injury to insult: Hamilton sprained his knee on the play and was carted off. Ken Harvey now has company.

But we come here not to ridicule, but to make a point. The struggle comes with a price. There is no good point for a two-week stretch as the worse team in baseball, but the Royals’ timing is particularly awful. They’re killing interest before it could be built.

Let’s take the optimist’s view. Let’s assume the Royals are not this bad. Let’s assume this is the worst they’ll be all season, that Adalberto Mondesi will continue to blossom and the bullpen will improve and they will generally play the last 5 1/2 months like an interesting and hopeful rebuilding team.

Even if that’s all true, scenes like this have still been created:

A man stood at the corner of Lot A outside Kauffman Stadium on Thursday, a hundred feet or so from Gate D, asking everyone who passed if they needed tickets. He wouldn’t give his name but said he was sent by an agency and worked on commission. He wore a black Tiger Woods hat and a portable yellow smiley-face speaker.

He was in a good mood, smiling often. Nice day, he said, and he liked listening to his music. He had just talked to a potential buyer a few minutes before, but that deal fell through. I ask how many tickets he’d sold so far.

“None,” he said.

I ask how many he expected to sell.

“None,” he said, and then he laughed.

To be sure, nobody will or should feel sorry for this man or the agency he worked for. But the dipping interest his experience represents is settling in strong and — barring a remarkable turnaround — will hang over this team all season.

This is not just a bad look for the franchise, but a real factor in revenue and what owner David Glass would be expected to spend.

The Royals did not even come close to selling out their season opener — the announced attendance of 31,675 was the lowest for an opener at the Truman Sports Complex since the first game after the 1994 strike. The Royals have had teams open on the road, come back with reasonable expectations of 100 losses, and still sell out that first game at Kauffman Stadium.

Heck, the 2005 team, which followed a 104-loss season with 106 more, drew 41,788.

Granted, the weather wasn’t great, but the low turnout also wasn’t a fluke. Entering the weekend, the Royals hadn’t drawn more than 13,533 fans for any game this year. Five of their nine home games drew fewer than 11,000.

Last year, the Royals did not have a single total that low.

To be fair, the Royals aren’t the only club struggling with sales. Seven others have already had games with fewer than 11,000 tickets sold. The Orioles have had three below 8,000. The Marlins drew 5,934 against the Mets.

But the Royals might be baseball’s most drastic case of cliff-diving attendance. They rank ahead of only the Marlins in average.

The good news is that the Royals will welcome a revenue bump next season, assuming they replace one of the worst TV contracts in professional sports with one closer to market value. Depending on how you do the counting, the Royals should receive $20 million to $40 million more with a new deal.

For our purposes in this column, the bad news is that this increase has always been planned on. It is, in many ways, baked into future budgets. Those budgets have also counted on attendance not bottoming out.

So instead of using these seasons to bank profits to be used to bolster future rosters, the Royals will be chasing lost revenues with more cuts.

Royals attendance peaked during the 2015 season, with a franchise-record 2,708,549 fans (10th in baseball). Since then: 2,557,712 in 2016 (12th), then 2,220,370 in 2017 (17th) before the big drop to 1,665,107 in 2018 (23rd).

That’s a 25% drop from 2017 to 2018, and the trend line continues — the Royals entered the weekend 23% down from the same number of home dates last year.

The Royals generally count on each fan being worth $35, meaning the club made about $19 million less on in-stadium revenue last year ... and if the current trend holds, another $12 million less this season.

To be clear: Glass is not starving. Forbes estimated the Royals made $5.3 million in operating profit last year. The magazine’s estimates are always refuted by clubs both publicly and privately but have generally held up respectably when books have been leaked and remain the best guesses available.

The trick is that club payrolls have mostly dipped in concert with revenue. The Royals spent almost exactly $19 million less on their opening day payroll in 2018, and cut another $13 million this season.

Next year, the Royals will save another $16 million on Alex Gordon’s contract (he’s making $20 million this year and will receive a $4 million buyout that counts toward the 2020 payroll).

In the meantime, the whole exercise is turning Kauffman Stadium into a bit of a roomy and open-air lounge. Some scenes from Thursday:

A man in the 400-level smoking deck who said he was only there because his wife had free tickets as part of a retirement gift. A woman buying a hot dog near section 115 who said she was only there to help her sister with the kids. A group of middle aged men leaving in the sixth inning, and when asked if they had fun, one replied: “The tickets were free and we all skipped work, so hell yes!”

Of the nine people or groups stopped for this column, only three said they bought the tickets themselves.

“It’s fun when the stadium is rocking but it’s also fun when it’s just us 10,000 people here,” said Brad Combs, a Clinton man who held a Coors Light tallboy. “I look around, and they’re sticking it out like I am.”

Jason Bryles, dressed in a collared blue shirt underneath a Royals jacket, provided perhaps the most optimistic view: “I’m here because I’m a Royals fan. I see the future on the field. It’s fun to watch. By the seventh inning, it’s not as fun to watch because of the bullpen.”

This wasn’t the plan. The Royals have always resisted the idea of tanking, sometimes to their competitive or financial detriment. It’s an admirable strategy, and when successful could cover a rebuild with enough eyewash to maintain relevance in the standings and hope in the stands through the summer.

But when it doesn’t, we get the current state of the Royals: losses stacking, interest dipping, payroll still above $100 million and attendance trending toward its worst mark in more than a decade.

Club officials have always counted on an interest spike once school is out.

At the moment, the team is in danger of killing that chance before Easter.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.


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