The Pirates, Orioles and Rays are now a hotter ticket than the New York Mets

Citi Field. (Photo via Paul Hadsall's flickr stream.)
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For Major League Baseball teams, Opening Day is supposed to be the sure thing, ticket-wise. Good or bad, hope springs eternal.

And so it has been for the New York Mets for the past decade and a half, through losing and winning: tickets still sold, and quickly, for Opening Day, with New York at near capacity in every home opener since 1997. And in most other markets, here in 2012, that scarcity of Opening Day tickets continues.

So it was almost a cry for help when a message landed in the mailbox of previous ticket purchasers late Friday afternoon, subject line "Mets Opening Day Special Offer," offering a most generous deal: "Opening Day is almost here, and we don't want you to miss any memorable Mets moments.  You can still purchase tickets to watch the first pitch of the Mets 50th anniversary season. And to thank you for your continued support, you can choose to come back on Saturday or Sunday for free."

Think about what that says about the demand for Mets tickets at this point. Not only is Opening Day failing to draw, but so many tickets remain for the first home weekend of the season—Saturday and Sunday usually provide teams with their best attendance numbers—that the Mets are giving those away free.

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Over the weekend, there was a rare batch of good news for the team. Johan Santana threw a side session and declared himself fit to start the opener. David Wright and Ike Davis showed no ill effects from spring injuries. Lucas Duda continued hitting the ball with authority, actually knocking over Detroit's second baseman with a line drive.

But still, with just over 72 hours until Opening Day, plenty of tickets remain unsold. If Opening Day represents the high-water mark, attendance is setting up to be a bigger problem for the Mets in 2012 than it has been in many years, just at a time when ownership needs the cash flow more than ever.

Consider the depth of the problem. Blocks of tickets remain available directly from the Mets for Thursday's opener. As of this morning, you could still purchase 12 tickets together for sections ranging from Metropolitan Box, the $215 seats along the first and third base dugouts, Caesar's Club Gold, the $175 seats in sections stretching from roughly first base to third base with access to all clubs, right down to the $42 Promenade Reserved.

For fans simply looking to bring a family of four, tickets are available in places like the $225 Champions Club behind home plate, or if your price range is more limited, the $55 Promenade Reserved Infield tickets between sections 510-518.

Compare this to the message one receives when trying to buy tickets to the Yankees' April 13 home opener—no tickets available—and the problem starts to become obvious.

But lots of teams fall short of the Yankees, right?

How about the Phillies, New York's division rival? The April 9 opener has been sold out for weeks. But the Phillies have been perennial champions. How about the Nationals, whose ballpark is only a year older than Citi Field, and whose best season since moving from Montreal in 2005 was the one in which they won 83 games? Standing-room only for the April 12 opener, max of two tickets.

Ah, but Washington has a core of young talent and reason to hope. What about the Pittsburgh Pirates, with losing seasons in 20 straight campaigns? Surely they must have trouble selling out their home opener, considering they had the second-worst attendance in the National League last season, ahead of only the Marlins, who were stuck in an awful ballpark they've now shed.

The Pirates have sold out Opening Day. So has Baltimore, a team that finished 26th in attendance last year, and is expected to finish last in the American League East in 2012. Tampa Bay, who finished 29th in attendance and whose owners don't believe they can stay in the market with their current revenues, do not even have a block of four seats available for their April 6 opener.

The lack of demand for the Mets seats is obvious based on both the number of tickets available on Stubhub for the opener, along with their price tag. An event that normally sells for well above face value is for sale in every section of Citi Field for less than the face value of the ticket, even with the Mets introducing dynamic pricing to their ticket selling this year. The $215 Metropolitan Box seats can be had for $175. $155 Field Box tickets are available for $119. $113 Caesar's Box tickets are going for $88. Promenade Infield, $55 from the Mets, $45 from Stubhub.

Nor is this discount the exception; for the subsequent April games, Stubhub has Mets tickets routinely for sale for less than $10.

This difficulty selling Opening Day tickets is a new development, even though the Mets have seen attendance dip from 3.1 million in 2009 to 2.56 million in 2010 and 2.37 million in 2011. The Mets drew 41,075 to the 2011 home opener, 41, 245 in 2010's first game and 41,007 to Citi Field's first game in 2009. At Shea, where capacity was closer to 55,000 than the 42,000 that Citi Field holds, crowds regularly topped 53,000 going back to the last century.

Back in 1997, the Mets were coming off of six straight losing seasons, and had the added misfortune of getting their home opener rained out. A team that had started 3-6 drew just 21,981 to Shea Stadium on a cloudy Sunday for a single-admission douleheader, and the Mets lost a pair to the San Francisco Giants to fall to 3-8.

The 1997 Mets ultimately rallied, finishing 88-74 under Bobby Valentine, but still drew just 1.76 million fans, tenth in the National League. It took several years for New York to return to even the top half of the National League in attendance. Yet by 1998, the home opener drew 49,142 fans.

Fifteen years later, in a far more competitive financial environment around Major League Baseball, it appears the Mets are in danger of drawing as few fans as they did in 1997. Considering the team lost $70 million last year with attendance at 2.37 million, not to mention at a higher price per ticket, a drop in demand this year along the lines indicated by Opening Day sales would be quite a negative comment on what the organization has been putting its fans through, and possibly a devastating one, too.