TORONTO, Canada — It’s never pleasant living in a city where major sports teams always lose. Better a losing team, however, than no team at all.
In hockey, the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, as every school child here knows, was 1967. In basketball, the Toronto Raptors entered the NBA in 1995, but have only once reached the semifinals.
There’s plenty of passion around Toronto FC, which has played to sell-out crowds since joining Major League Soccer in 2006. But the team has never won more than 36 percent of its regular season games. In fact, the last time Toronto sports fans celebrated a major victory was in 2004, when the Toronto Argonauts won the Grey Cup of Canadian football.
But the biggest worry these days is with the once-glorious Toronto Blue Jays, who twice became World Series Champions, in 1992 and 1993. Back then, crowds of 50,000 for a baseball game were routine. But a long and steady decline has turned that torrent of support into an embarrassing trickle.
Last week, after a sell-out crowd of more than 46,000 cheered the Jays on opening day, turnout plummeted to 10,314 for a game against the Kansas City Royals — the lowest since the club moved to their downtown Rogers Centre stadium in 1990. Yet the team has been playing winning, even exciting, baseball.
Turnout for their first 10 home games of the season was more than 40,000 lower than the first 10 last year. The betting is that the team won’t attract the 1.87 million fans it did last year. In their heyday, the Jays reached a season high of 4 million fans.
A handful of other major league teams have been struggling with low attendance early in the season, including the Baltimore Orioles, who drew 9,129 people for a game last week, the smallest crowd in the 19-year history of Camden Yards. For the Jays, who have been losing money for at least the last two years, there is no comfort in misery.
A number of excuses for the low turnout have been circulating: sports fans are watching the hockey playoffs, the team is rebuilding, star pitcher Roy Halladay was traded, visiting teams are lackluster, kids are in school and the weather isn’t warm enough.
But that hasn’t stopped diehard fans from fearing for the team’s future. The death of the Montreal Expos, who moved to Washington in 2004, is on everyone’s minds. The Blue Jays are the only major league baseball team Canada has left.
“If we ever lose this franchise, the people of Toronto are to blame — not the team, the people,” said season-ticket holder John Morris, 69, sitting on the third base side of home plate during a game against the Royals last week. The stadium was a sea of blue empty seats.
Before the start of an afternoon game, Marcel the scalper explained the realities of supply and demand.
At the Blue Jays’ home opener April 12, when a capacity crowd jammed the Rogers Centre, he was selling $14 nosebleed tickets for $100 each. Ten home games later, with fans as rare as a Jays .300 hitter, he struggled to unload tickets for almost half their price.
“Upper levels, we’re selling them for 10 bucks each,” said Marcel, a stocky 30-something doing his thing at the afternoon game Wednesday. “Behind the plate we’re selling them for, like, 40 or 50 bucks instead of $75.”
He hasn’t seen it this bad in his 10-year career.
“I’m going home with blocks of tickets I can’t sell — 20 tickets, 40 tickets,” he said.
“It’s supply and demand,” he added. “We make all our money on the first day and then the rest of the year we’re starving.”
“The brain trust here have got to figure out what they’re doing.”
Not many on the demand side will pity Marcel. But he could take comfort in the fact that the “brain trust” feels his pain.
“When the scalpers don’t make money, then you know you’ve got a problem,” said Paul Beeston, president and CEO of the Blue Jays.
Beeston, 64, headed the team back in the glory days, before he became president of Major League Baseball in New York. He came back in 2008.
In his office, with his feet up on the desk, an unlit cigar in his mouth and a view of Lake Ontario, the irrepressible Beeston vows to recreate the magic of the early 1990s.
His plan for success is obvious: Put a winning team on the field. That will take good scouting, developing players fans can identify with, and then buying top free agents to fill in the gaps. He says the owner — Rogers Communications, which also owns the stadium and the profitable Rogers Sportsnet cable TV channel — are willing to give it time.
“It’s going to require a little patience,” said Beeston, who won’t say for how long. “But at the very end of it you’re going to be in a position where you could sit back and say you watched this team grow.”
Still, even he confesses to moments of sacrilegious doubt — “Is baseball dead in Toronto? I don’t know if baseball’s dead in Toronto.”