Shaikin: How the Padres continue to consistently draw fans to Petco Park

Fans cheer at Petco Park before an Opening Day baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the San Diego Padres, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

The Dodgers lead the major leagues in attendance. They always do. No surprise there.

The team that ranks second in attendance is the one that has a rally towel hanging next to the home dugout, urging the players to “COMPETE FOR PETE.”

Peter Seidler lived the final decade of his life transforming the Padres into a team that would compete for San Diego. This is a small market in every way — by population, by geography, by television viewers — and Seidler simply disregarded the facts.

San Diego was not a small market because Seidler said it was not. The Padres spent big because Seidler said they should win.

And, six months after Seidler passed away, his legacy shines every night at Petco Park. The Padres — the small-market Padres — have attracted more fans this season than any team but the Dodgers.

Read more: Shaikin: Padres' Peter Seidler, baseball's risky spender: 'There's a risk to doing nothing'

Last year, the Padres attracted more fans than any team but the Dodgers and New York Yankees. In the four seasons since the pandemic hit, the Padres have ranked among the top five in attendance every season, an era in which their roster has featured Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Xander Bogaerts, Juan Soto, Blake Snell and Josh Hader, all of them all-stars.

The warning lights flashed in the minds of fans last winter, in the wake of Seidler’s passing, when the Padres slashed payroll by one-third, traded Soto and let Snell and Hader go in free agency.

“It starts to look like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” said Tony Gwynn Jr., the former Padres outfielder and current Padres broadcaster.

San Diego Padres owner Peter Seidler stands on the field before the team's baseball game against the Seattle Mariners
Padres owner Peter Seidler, who died last November, set a tone with his ballclub that has translated into success at the gate. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

“I think it was a little bit more tempered than it was a couple years ago,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who makes his offseason home in the San Diego area, “but I think they have built something here.”

On the field, the Padres don’t have much to show for all the excitement and all the investment beyond three postseason victories over the Dodgers two years ago. They raised ticket prices by an average of 9% for the 2024 season — after raising prices by an average of 18% for the 2023 season and 20% for the 2022 season, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“If you were able to take a step back, you were able to see that this roster still had names and guys that make it nothing like it was pre-2019,” Gwynn said, referring to the heydays of the likes of Carlos Asuaje and Freddy Galvis.

“I think people can put their trust in this. I think they have shown that by showing up here. That’s with ticket prices going up, and I think that has a lot to do with the Padres keeping their word to this point.”

Indeed, after the turbulent winter, the Padres acquired pitcher Dylan Cease in March and two-time batting champion Luis Arraez two weeks ago.

The Padres capped season ticket sales at a record 25,000. You can get on a waiting list, if you pay $100 per year for as many seats as you would like to buy.

The Padres project a new franchise attendance record this year — beyond the 3.27 million tickets they sold last year — and they set a Petco Park single-game attendance record of 46,701 against the Dodgers last Saturday.

Read more: James Paxton, Teoscar Hernández power Dodgers over Padres in front of record crowd

Before that game, Jorge Casillas told me one reason why he renewed his Padres season seats.

“No matter what,” he said, “I’m watching a major league team.”

The Chargers’ move to Los Angeles in 2017 left the Padres as the city’s lone major league team. San Diego State put up a beautiful $310-million stadium to bolster its bid to join the Pac-12 Conference, only to see the Pac-12 implode.

Casillas said he believes the Padres can secure a wild-card playoff spot this season after missing the postseason in 2021 and 2023, and every year from 2007 through 2019.

“We’re not like the Dodgers, obviously,” Casillas said. “We’ve had more bad years than good.

“But this stadium has everything — food, character, the right spot downtown. It’s really an event. It’s not just baseball. If we win, it’s even better.”

The Padres invested $20 million in expanding and reimagining the space behind center field, with grass and turf seating for close to 5,000 fans — akin to sitting on the outfield lawn in spring training — and a stage that enables the team to host bands before games and cozy concerts when the team does not play. The requisite social spaces are there, meaning bars for adults and play space for kids — in San Diego, that now includes Wiffle ball, cornhole, a slide and “the tallest climbable bat in the world.” (How tall? 35 feet, 2¼ inches)

A general view of Gallagher Square, the area behind center field at Petco Park, prior to a game between the Giants and Padres
The area behind center field at Petco Park received $20 million in upgrades that were completed in time for this season. (Brandon Sloter / Getty Images)

“I think we have established a great ballpark experience, but that in and of itself isn’t going to be enough to sustain this level of attendance,” said Padres chief executive Erik Greupner, “nor is it our goal to sustain attendance on the basis of a ballpark experience.”

The Colorado Rockies boast a spacious bar atop right field, with majestic mountain views, and the San Francisco Giants offer a spectacular waterfront ballpark and garlic fries. But the Rockies have been so relentlessly miserable and the Giants so anonymous and uninspiring that fans have stayed home.

The Rockies, given the product, might have the best fans in baseball. This year, for the first time in 17 years, the Rockies do not rank in the league’s top half in attendance. (Local angle: The last-place Angels do not rank in the league’s top 10, after selling 3 million tickets every year from 2003 to 2019.)

Greupner said the Padres want a roster headlined by established and sometimes costly stars and fortified with annual replenishment from their minor league system.

“I think the Dodgers have done that particularly well for a lot of years,” he said. “I think that’s the holy grail for any team in Major League Baseball.”

Padres CEO Erik Greupner seen during the national anthem prior to a baseball game against the Marlins in May 2022.
Padres CEO Erik Greupner says his team has "established a great ballpark experience, but that in and of itself isn't going to be enough to sustain this level of attendance." (Derrick Tuskan / Associated Press)

It is. But what the Dodgers and Padres get — and the owners of so many other teams do not — is that sustainability and financial flexibility are boardroom buzzwords. The tell: “Let’s hire a guy from the Tampa Bay Rays.”

Flags fly for championships, not for financial efficiency. Fans want to win, and they also want to invest their hearts and wallets in players they can call their own for years.

Read more: MLB rips Bally Sports: Kevin Pillar is must-see TV!

Since 2010, the Rays have made the playoffs seven times — five more than the Padres. But the Rays’ roster churn is so unrelenting that the team has ranked in the bottom four in attendance every year since 2010.

It is not, as it turns out, just about winning. It is not just about the fan experience. It is both.

“Everybody has to raise their game to try to keep up with the Dodgers,” Greupner said.

The Padres try. Can’t say that for everybody.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.