The extra playoff spot in Major League Baseball this season has thickened the races, with several teams well within October's reach despite taking mediocre records into the stretch run.
That's having an impact in the seats — as has some good weather, signs of life in the economy and other factors. MLB-wide attendance is up again, about 4 percent from 2011.
"There are more teams that have a shot, so it's given teams a lot of hope," said Lou DePaoli, chief marketing officer for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
MLB's eight best season attendance totals have all come in the last eight years, and this one is on pace to keep that run going.
The major league average of 31,516 through Monday was up 4.3 percent from 2011's final average of 30,229, according to STATS LLC, but remains below the pre-recession highs of 32,785 in 2007 and 32,528 the following year. The average usually declines in September, after schools are back in session.
The defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals have been selling an average of 3,383 more tickets per game from last year, even after losing megastar Albert Pujols. They're on track to hit the 3 million mark for the 14th time in the last 15 seasons. Though the Royals are sputtering, having the All-Star game in Kansas City sparked sales a bit. They're up 3,204 per game.
"I think that shows how the economy is rebounding," said Mike Swanson, vice president of communications and broadcasting. He also pointed to the team's young core of Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas that's helped create interest.
The National League-leading Cincinnati Reds got a preseason bump from new contracts for stars Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Sean Marshall and the trade for Mat Latos, and they're up 1,296 per game. Their average of 29,192 tickets sold per game is on pace to beat the Great American Ball Park record from the stadium's opening in 2003.
The Detroit Tigers shelled out for prize free agent Prince Fielder and are filling 7,328 more seats per game than last year.
The Boston Red Sox have a sellout streak at Fenway Park that started on May 15, 2003, despite another disappointing season on the field — though sellout numbers can be deceiving to the eye at the ballpark because what counts are tickets sold, not people through the turnstiles.
After setting a franchise attendance record last season, the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers have topped themselves again by averaging 43,607 per game, an increase of 6,848, more than 18 percent.
Several long-struggling clubs have enjoyed a renaissance, too. The Washington Nationals have been drawing 6,728 more than last year's pace. The Baltimore Orioles are up, too, by 3,780.
The Pirates are selling 1,483 more tickets per game, announcing their 13th sellout crowd on Saturday. The team record of 19 when PNC Park opened in 2001 is in sight, as is their first postseason appearance in 20 years.
"When I started to have to wait to get food in the fifth inning of a weekday game, I knew things were changing," said fan Dave Jenkins, who saw the Pirates lose 5-4 to the Dodgers on Monday night.
Pittsburgh's strong start in 2011 — even with a late fade — helped them move more season tickets for 2012, and their success this spring was captivating enough to keep the customers coming.
"I think people were kind of just waiting to see if they were for real. It's been a long time, you know," said Natalie Johnson, another fan at the park on Monday. "I don't know if it's the wild card or anything, at least not here. I think people just like that the Pirates are good again."
Some of the MLB-wide jump doesn't pertain to winning, though. A new ballpark opened in Miami, where despite an underperforming team the Marlins are selling 10,614 more tickets per game this year than last season in cavernous, football-centric Sun Life Stadium.
The weather has been warmer and drier in the Great Lakes and Eastern Seaboard states, where unfriendly weather helped keep crowds smaller in the spring of 2011. MLB tallied 51 rainouts last season, the most since 1997. The game has also enjoyed almost two decades of labor peace since the devastating 1994 player strike, while collective bargaining clashes have hit the NFL, NBA and NHL in the last 15 months.
Then there are the ways teams have tried to keep fans coming despite a down economy shaping a give-me-a-good-deal-or-else customer attitude.
"The clubs have done a wonderful job," MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said. "You can go to any website and see the packages that they offer, whether it's a four-pack of tickets that includes food and parking or any of these other types of discounts designed to bring people in."
Creativity is likely what will really count in the long run. Winning doesn't last forever.
"Fans start to ask, 'What are you offering me that I didn't get before?' Bobbleheads only go so far," said Lee Igel, an associate professor in the sports business and management department at New York University.
Jonathan Norman, who has analyzed sports attendance trends as part of sponsorship evaluations for his Milwaukee-area agency GMR Marketing, praised the boom in "dynamic pricing" that teams have started using to compete with brokerages like StubHub that re-sell seats online. Teams will tweak prices all the way up until to game time to match demand or package tickets in more-attractive ways.
"It's not just a response to the secondary market," Norman said. "It's more of an adjustment to the consumer mindset. People are used to Google offers, Groupons and everything else these days. People are used to getting a deal on things."
AP Sports Writers R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis, Will Graves in Pittsburgh and Joe Kay in Cincinnati and AP freelance writer Alan Eskew in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.
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