Mariners rank near the top of the league in attendance growth

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Fans are slowly starting to return to Safeco. Will you?

When I was a kid, I used to envy fans of teams who played in half-empty stadiums. My first introduction to semi-regularly attending major league baseball games came in watching the Mariners the first few years at Safeco Field—which saw the M's rank first, first and second in attendance in the ballpark's first three full years.

I come from a family of seven, and we'd never go to a Mariners game with less than four. Nearly every game I attended as an M's fan who never knew anything other than packed stadiums was spent in either the left- or center-field bleachers. Well, at least half of each game I went to was spent there.

"Hey, keep an eye on those five under the the third base camera. No, yeah, those—just up from the guy in the orange jacket."

"Oooh, look at those, almost half a row, about halfway up from the ball girl."

"Gah, look—they must've come late. Those ones just up from where the fence juts out were the best."

It must've been so much easier for fans of teams like the Devil Rays, Royals, Twins and Blue Jays, I thought. Oh, had I known then what I know now.

Before the start of the Cliff Lee season, after a lifetime of "anybody got one extra ticket?!"ing our way in, my family decided to throw down on two half-season tickets in the lower bowl. They're not super low down but enough that, when I first saw them, I couldn't believe I'd be able to watch 40 games there if I wanted.

When we first got them, they were in the thick of where everyone sat—the season ticket holders, the walk-ups and the visiting fans for the games that warranted them. But since, the line to which seats were normally filled to crept up behind us and, by the end of last season, passed us.

It was like a tide that kept going out, and there we were, in a run-aground rowboat, watching another meaningless September.

Of a survey that spanned the 2001 to the 2012 seasons, the Mariners ranked first in all of American sports in attendance loss.

So the question has long been asked: if the Mariners do eventually return to the winning ways of the early aughts, would the fans return too?

The headline gives away the fact that maybe we're starting to see that yes, maybe they will—maybe they are—coming back. There's a long ways to go, but here's a look at the numbers, narrowed down from this Baseball Reference chart taking the number of home games played by teams in so far in 2014, and checking the attendance against the same number of home games in 2013. Now, there's rounding involved in the "Difference" column, so that explains some being off by a single head.

Nevertheless, a ranking of attendance growth, for games played through Sunday:

Team 2013 Attendance Per Game 2014 Attendance Per Game Difference Percent change
HOU 18,086 22,285 4,200 23.2%
MIA 17,399 21,440 4,040 23.2%
PIT 21,798 26,558 4,760 21.8%
SEA 20,076 22,567 2,491 12.4%
BOS 33,079 36,137 3,058 9.2%
BAL 27,817 30,140 2,323 8.4%
LAD 42,929 45,747 2,818 6.6%
STL 40,855 43,161 2,305 5.6%
MIL 30,701 32,037 1,337 4.4%
NYY 39,056 40,710 1,655 4.2%
LAA 36,995 38,354 1,359 3.7%
SDP 25,152 25,989 837 3.3%
CIN 28,843 29,580 737 2.6%
NYM 26,463 26,865 402 1.5%
TBR 18,060 18,196 136 0.8%
COL 32,722 32,906 184 0.6%
OAK 20,786 20,847 61 0.3%
SFG 41,655 41,757 102 0.2%
CHC 32,453 32,161 -292 -0.9%
KCR 21,362 21,017 -344 -1.6%
ARI 27,706 26,309 -1,398 -5.0%
DET 35,938 33,260 -2,677 -7.4%
TEX 38,842 35,813 -3,029 -7.8%
CHW 21,892 19,812 -2,081 -9.5%
ATL 31,335 28,293 -3,041 -9.7%
WSN 33,735 30,127 -3,608 -10.7%
MIN 30,242 26,473 -3,769 -12.5%
TOR 30,185 25,720 -4,465 -14.8%
CLE 17,467 14,776 -2,691 -15.4%
PHI 38,277 30,304 -7,973 -20.8%

As you can see, three of the top four spots are occupied by teams that were horrible last year, in Seattle, Miami and Houston. All are noticeably better this year, and we're seeing a change in attendance. What you'll also notice is that the entire top four, Pittsburgh included, don't actually do that well—overall—in comparison to the rest of the league. All rank in the bottom half of the league. Seattle, specifically, is still 23rd.

Nevertheless, the Mariners are moving in the right direction, and they're doing so at a steady clip. They improved their attendance from 2012 to 2013, but what we're seeing this year is a much better rate of change.

Still, what the we've seen thus far should only be the beginning. It was always going to be the easiest to add those first few thousand. Now is where it gets interesting.

The Mariners are five games over .500 for the first time since the end of 2009. That team had a -51 run differential, this one's at +32. The 2014 Mariners are a team worth buying into. There's no guarantee they won't make you pay later, but right now, they're worth tracking.

And you're starting to see it. Mariners talk—playoff talk!—is slowly creeping onto sports radio, take the place of conversations on Seahawks practices. You're starting to overhear talk of the Mariners in offices, on the bus and in the streets. Maybe I'm just looking for them, but I swear I'm seeing more Mariners caps too.

Now, will they show?

This isn't 2001 anymore, and it costs a decent chunk more to get into a game. Then again, Safeco Field isn't the same anymore either, as the organization has done an exceptional job maintaining the ballpark's place as the best in baseball.

I'm interested to hear from you, those who have the ability to get to games: if you didn't get to many games before, are you thinking about going to more now? If you already went to some, are you trying to get to a lot more?

Answering my own questions, I find myself trying to get to as many games as I can—games I already have tickets for, and a lot more I don't.

What I know is this: the Mariners are back in town tonight, and for what must be the third or fourth time this year, I'm thrilled. I can't wait to get back into the ballpark.

But now that the Hisashi Iwakuma - Masahiro Tanaka duel is off the table, because the Yankees ruin everything, this is what I'm most interested in seeing: how many people will show? Could the Mariners eclipse 25,000 on a weeknight game?

Attendance is up already, but now is when we find out if Seattle's love for baseball has truly returned.

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