NEW YORK — Rich Aurilia noticed all the empty seats as he made his way around the major leagues during the second half of this season.
"You have to," the San Francisco Giants infielder said. "I think you do in the places where the teams are totally out of it."
Attendance has dropped 6.9 percent across the majors to its lowest level since 2003, an average of 30,276. That follows a 0.8 percent slide last year from the record average of 32,785 set in 2007.
Given the recession and the decrease in capacity in two new ballparks that opened in New York this year, baseball officials are pleased.
"Obviously, I've stated how well we've done," commissioner Bud Selig said this week. "I'll have plenty to say after I've seen the final numbers."
Even before the end of this season, some teams are slashing ticket prices for 2010. In the past, many teams waited until November to announce how much they will cost. Not any more.
Washington is reducing the cost of more than 3,300 seats, and said prices won't go up on any non-premium tickets. Oakland is lowering prices by an average of 10 percent, and San Diego is cutting the cost of 60 percent of individual tickets.
"Getting out early, so that they can make accurate assessment of season ticket renewals for budgeting purposes given the economy, is prudent," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer. "Clubs are sensitive to fans' budgeting needs and are trying to be responsive."
With hardly any pennant races, the attendance slide has been more pronounced during the second half.
Twenty-two of the 30 teams have seen decreases, and three of the teams with increases are up less than 1 percent. Nearly 30 percent of the overall drop came in New York, where the Yankees cut capacity by about 7,000 and the Mets by approximately 16,000.
The Mets, headed to their worst record since 2003, have experienced the biggest drop at 24 percent. Other teams with big decreases are Washington, headed to its second straight 100-loss season (22 percent); Toronto (22 percent); San Diego (21 percent) and Detroit (20 percent). The Yankees went down 13 percent.
"The way the economy's going, a family of four comes to the ballpark and how much is a hot dog, a Coke, a drink for the parents?" Giants pitcher Brad Penny said. "That adds up."
For some teams, decreases have been caused by the economy. For others, poor on-field performance is to blame.
"I think it's more dependent on won-loss record, but clearly the economics have a role to play," said Nationals president Stan Kasten. "I'm a believer we get the attendance we deserve."
On the plus side, Texas is up 14 percent, and Kansas City (its first season at renovated Kauffman Stadium) and Florida jumped 12 percent each. Philadelphia jumped 5 percent following its World Series title, and Tampa Bay increased 3 percent after its AL pennant.
Even minor league baseball, which was hovering close to even in June, saw a second-half dropoff and finished with an average of 4,055. That was down 2.9 percent from last year.
Teams are bracing for a soft economy next season, even if the recession ends.
"It would be hard for me to imagine that based upon the current economic conditions we would jump back to the 2008 attendance figure," Detroit Tigers president Dave Dombrowski said.
It's not just baseball that's paying close attention to the turnstile counts. The NHL's season-ticket renewal rate for full packages is 84 percent, spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur said.
"It's still too early to know what our final sales numbers will be," said NBA spokesman Michael Bass, "but we're pacing slightly ahead of last year on sales of new season tickets." September was a surprisingly strong month and we expect that momentum to continue."
With 81 home games for each team and larger venues, baseball has far more tickets to sell and a higher percentage of seats is available for individual games.
In New York, the price cuts for next year have been substantial.
At new Yankee Stadium, the best field-level seats will go down from $325 to $250 or $235 as part of season plans, and 3,400 field-level seats will have lower prices. The Mets are lowering prices 10 to 20 percent for their second season at Citi Field.
"The economy is still a challenge, and we just wanted to be as aggressive as we could in reducing the pricing," Mets executive vice president Dave Howard said.