The Price of Failure

Empty seats abound at Giants home games – and it's not just the team that's losing.

On a recent sweltering evening, Big Mike (aka Cab Man) took out his frustrations on a heaping plate of thighs and wings at Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken, just a Barry Zito soft-toss from AT&T Park. The joint doubles as Mike's office and sales floor, but there wasn't much business to be done: While the deep-fried feast on the veteran ticket scalper's plate was piping hot, the San Francisco Giants tickets in his back pocket were ice-cold.

"I tell you what," Mike says, jamming home his point with a tightly grasped french fry, "The folks out here selling tickets is getting whupped just as bad as the Giants is getting whupped."

With the 2008 San Francisco squad struggling to win 40 percent of its games, recent memories of pennant-worthy teams and Barry Bonds' record-breaking home-run binges feel impossibly distant. Yet Big Mike's lament illustrates that it's not only the Giants who are struggling these days.

Winston Newquay used to earn his "toothpaste money" by collecting cans at stadium parking lots. Now, however, he says smaller AT&T Park crowds have left police idle enough to repeatedly boot him off the premises.
Joe Eskenazi
Winston Newquay used to earn his "toothpaste money" by collecting cans at stadium parking lots. Now, however, he says smaller AT&T Park crowds have left police idle enough to repeatedly boot him off the premises.

Through 41 games this year, the average paid crowd at AT&T Park has plummeted to 34,875, nearly 5,000 fewer tickets sold per game than in 2007. In part, Giants officials blame a bad economy — but Major League attendance is up nearly 2 percent nationwide. The team declined to release the actual number of fans who enter through the turnstiles, but one longtime team employee in a position to know estimated the no-show rate is often as high as 15 or 20 percent — or more.

What this means is that on game days, perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 fewer fans — and their wallets — are strolling past the Willie Mays statue than in the team's recent heyday. And the merchants operating on the periphery of the ballpark — legitimate or not — are suffering.

Prior to a recent home game, 18-year-old Tanya stood for hours next to the Lefty O'Doul Bridge, hawking bags of peanuts and sunflower seeds for a dollar apiece. On a good day, she can clear $150. But one, two, or three years ago? "Oh, man," she says, shaking her head and closing her eyes. "I could pull, like, $400" — routinely.

Nearby, 15-year-old "Little Eric" sells candy bars. He'd be happy to gross $100 today. Last year he could count on $200 day in, day out.

Many sit-down eateries have also watched their earnings dwindle along with the Giants' run production. Christine Sumardi of SBC Pizza (whose moniker reflects a home stadium that has gone through more names than John Mellencamp) said she'd be pleased to sell $1,000 worth of slices on a game day this year. In years past, however, she could do better than double that: "With Barry Bonds, we expected business."

Finally, Jocelyn Alvarez, an operations manager for Ace Parking, said that 140 cars are considered a good ballgame crowd this year — though 220 were standard last year. Like other ballpark-area business owners contacted by SF Weekly, Alvarez said her operation is still profitable for now, but she's wary of dwindling Giants crowds and has begun aggressively marketing to the burgeoning Mission Bay neighborhood.

That isn't an option for Big Mike and the scalpers. As fans waddled out of parking lot A, a pod of scalpers beset them with shrieks of "Tickets! Tickets! Tickets!" Outpitched by other would-be sellers, "Silverstein" hung by the fence and took in the action from afar. But he'd do well to take the bat off his shoulder: His boss, "The Don," had recently let go 10 of his 20 scalpers.

Decked out in Giants orange and black, "John" confessed that his business was down at least 25 percent this year — "The team is garbage, man. They ain't even got a headliner" — but steadfastly claimed he never lost money. Not two minutes later, he let three $35 lower box tickets go for $60 total. He stared at the ground and frowned. "Okay, so I lost money there."

On the other side of the stadium near the AT&T Park Muni stop, scalpers fared no better. A trio of twentysomething men in European-cut white dress shirts pressed a wad of bills into a scalper's hand, condescendingly repeating, "Sold or not sold? Sold or not sold?" Sold. When asked how business was going, the scalper snarled, "You just seen me give up $200 worth of tickets for 93 goddamn dollars," and walked off. Several scalpers reported that losses of $400 a day or more have become routine — as has dumping tickets for well below face value.

In fact, even the team itself has resorted to slashing prices. Internet specials and marketing gimmicks can now get fans into the stadium for less than $5.

As the sun dipped behind AT&T Park's upper deck, the men on the bottom of the ballpark's economic batting order shivered as the night turned cold. Winston Newquay said he used to earn about $40 over eight hours, collecting cans in the parking lots: "This is how I get my toothpaste money." Yet with fewer fans to keep an eye on, police now have the time to boot him off team property. Two days before, he was slapped with his first citation.

Last year, Steve Hulet might have earned $10 panhandling outside the stadium. Now he's lucky to get $5 — and he'd only picked up $1 in two hours "at work" today. In his back pocket, he keeps a well-worn ticket from the game last year when Bonds launched his record 756th home run; Hulet used to ask fans for spare tickets, and the scads of stubs in his cluttered wallet indicate they came through.

Not this year, though. Hulet has no desire to follow this team. In his life, he has enough problems.

 
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