Column: How Shohei Ohtani could make the Dodgers the last MLB team to draw 4 million



This much is certain, 2024 edition: Death, taxes, and the Dodgers leading the major leagues in attendance.

The last time the Dodgers failed to lead the majors, they started the season in bankruptcy court. That was a dozen years ago.

For all the glorious summers since then, and for all the not-so-glorious traffic jams in the parking lots, the Dodgers have yet to reach the holy grail of MLB attendance.

Shohei Ohtani is here to fix that. With the addition of the greatest attraction in baseball, the Dodgers could hit 4 million in attendance for the first time in franchise history.

“L.A. should be proud of that,” said Janet Marie Smith, the Dodgers’ senior vice president of planning and development. “That is not the norm. It is just so exciting that there is that kind of life and passion and togetherness. It’s phenomenal.

“In a world where everything is increasingly more segregated, to come together over the passion of baseball is extraordinary.”

The Dodgers are the only team in MLB that can attract 4 million fans in a season. And, as best we can tell after consulting with sports business experts, the Dodgers are the only major sports team — in any sport, anywhere — that could attract 4 million fans in a season.

Football teams, here and abroad, play in much larger venues. But the MLB schedule features 81 home games each season, and no other major sport comes close.

FC Barcelona, the renowned Spanish soccer club, averaged 83,498 fans at home in the 2022-23 season — for 19 matches, and a total attendance of 1.6 million.

The club that plays in the largest team sport venue in the world — the Gujarat Titans of the top Indian cricket league — played seven regular-season home matches last year at the 132,000-seat Narendra Modi Stadium. If all seven had sold out, the Titans’ attendance still would have fallen short of 1 million.

The four MLB teams that have hit 4 million — the Toronto Blue Jays (1991-93), the Colorado Rockies (1993), the New York Yankees (2005-08) and the New York Mets (2008) — since have downsized their stadiums or moved into smaller ones.

The obligatory disclaimers: The Rockies could hit 4 million, if they sold every standing room spot, every game. The Oakland Athletics could too, if they replaced tarps with fans. So, no. The Dodgers can hit 4 million, but no other MLB team can.

The Dodgers have come very close. In 2019, they missed by 25,691. In the nine full non-pandemic seasons under current ownership, they have averaged 3.81 million. The Dodgers made the playoffs in every one of those seasons.

“We’ve been pretty consistent in the 3.8 range, 3.7 to 3.9,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten said. “Do I think it will be a little better than that? Probably. But we have to go out there and perform. I don’t take that for granted.”

Ohtani is here to perform, and not just on the field. Japanese fans flocked to Anaheim to see Ohtani with the Angels, and MLB last week announced a partnership with Japan’s largest travel agency. The Dodgers anticipate Japanese tourists aplenty at their home games.

“They’ve already been in our merchandise store,” Kasten said.

The Dodger Stadium capacity is 56,000, almost double the size of the home they left behind in New York. When Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles, he wanted a venue worthy of a team that conquered the West for MLB.

“He was leaving Ebbets Field, this little ballpark in Brooklyn,” Smith said. “He wanted a stadium.”

Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, as cities and counties across America started to embrace multipurpose stadiums. If taxpayers were going to pay for a venue for the local baseball team and the local football team, or so the thought went, why not pay for one stadium instead of two?

O’Malley was paying for his own stadium, and only for his baseball team. He declared Dodger Stadium could be expanded to 67,000 and later to 80,000, if demand warranted. It did not, but the stadium has held up well, even amid a wave of cozy retro ballparks.

“How much of this is fortuitous and how much of this is good design, I guess we’ll never know,” Smith said. “But he did it in a city that has supported the team consistently over the years and justified that capacity, whereas other cities have built baseball-only stadiums with a conscious effort to right-size for baseball.”

Six MLB teams now play in stadiums with capacity under 40,000. Two planned ballparks — for the A’s in Las Vegas, and for the Tampa Bay Rays — also would include fewer than 40,000 seats.

Smith, the most celebrated ballpark architect in the land, designed the original retro ballpark — Baltimore’s Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 — and imagined the Dodgers’ acclaimed fan plaza, carved out of the parking lot beyond center field.

“When Dodger Stadium was conceived, you sold hot dogs, beers and Cokes,” Kasten said. “Now, customers expect a whole different range of offerings. The newer stadiums do that by adding square footage for the amenities. It comes at the expense of more seats, but it’s probably better for them in the long run.

“For us, we are in such a big market — and the entertainment capital of the world — that we can have a large stadium and sell it out. We’re able to provide everything we provide while still having room for 50,000-plus every night.”

There is a twist to this story: The Dodgers could be the last MLB team to hit 4 million — but they also were the first team to hit 4 million, even if no one knew it at the time.

Today, every ticket sold counts toward attendance, whether or not the ticket was used. In 1982, when the National League did not count unused tickets toward attendance, the Dodgers sold 4 million, said Barry Stockhamer, former vice president of marketing.

“When the Blue Jays were the first club to announce 4 million, many of us would reflect that the milestone had already been passed by the Dodgers,” Stockhamer told The Times in 2010. “It didn’t diminish the accomplishment.”



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