“It was such a big part of our lives,” said Tobener, 42, who lives in San Mateo and discontinued the season tickets that were in his family since 1988, “but last year, because of the pandemic, obviously, nobody was getting in anyway, and it kind of became less of a priority to go.”
Tobener said he isn’t any less a Giants fan. He still religiously roots for the team, follows broadcasts and consumes media coverage.
His story is not unique. Despite the Giants having MLB’s best record most of the season, attendance is down from pre-pandemic levels. Averaging 18,056 per game, they rank just 13th in MLB, lowest in the ballpark’s 22-year history. (Excluding last year, of course, when attendance was zero.)
According to fans and executives, reasons for the drop range from caution because of the coronavirus to the low rate of workers returning to San Francisco workplaces to the inability to cater to large groups to the reduction of available public transportation.
“It became prohibitive for us because the resale market was gone,” Tobener said. “After 2016 when things started going downhill, there were nights I literally couldn’t give tickets away. That adds up after a while.”
Since opening their park in 2000, the Giants traditionally ranked among MLB’s attendance leaders. They were fourth in 2018. But in 2019, the third of four straight losing seasons, they fell to 11th.
So it’s not all about COVID-19. The Giants were on a downward trajectory before teams adopted different coronavirus protocols. While the Texas Rangers welcomed a sellout crowd of 38,238 in their home opener, the Giants opened with far stricter regulations and state and city mandates — including full vaccinations or negative test results. They drew 7,390 for their first home game and 3,662 a few days later.
At first, the Giants couldn’t seat more than 22% of their capacity while socially distancing fans with four-seat pods. There wasn’t room for all season-ticket holders at every game, so their access alternated every third game.
Only on June 25 did full capacity become available. Average attendance since has been 28,636 over 27 games and four homestands, topping off at 36,928 in the 41,331-seat facility.
“I think you’ve got to throw out average attendance for the year. How can you compare apples with kumquats?” Giants CEO Larry Baer said. “Before June 25 is irrelevant. Even then, we had to go back to season-ticket holders, start the group process. The velocity of sales is going well, but certain pieces have been tougher than others.”
Corporate group sales, for instance. In better times, those added roughly 300,000 tickets per year, 10% of 3 million total attendance, which the Giants have achieved 17 times. Until further notice, group sales have mostly dried up.
And with a fraction of fans returning to their workplace in the city, going to the ballpark at the end of the business day is far less common. San Francisco’s office vacancy rate rose to 20.1% in the second quarter, the highest since 2003, according to a Chronicle report last month. Kastle Systems, a Bay Area real estate security firm, reports a mere 19% occupancy rate.
That helps explain the attendance differential between weekdays versus weekends. Crowds were below 25,000 on the last homestand for weekday games against Arizona but in the mid-30,000s for weekend games against Colorado.
“As the world comes back, we’ll be fine,” Baer said. “Fans have been great. We have a good ticket base. They’ve come to the ballpark, and we’ve tried to make it a safe experience.”
The Giants’ season-ticket sales were 29,000 in peak years; now they’re 18,000 to 20,000, all full-season packages. There was no preseason FanFest to drum up sales. Season-ticket holders were given the option to roll their plans over to 2022.
Sales are as good as they are because of a breakout season. The Giants’ 84-46 record puts them 2 ½ games ahead of the second-place Dodgers in the NL West. The upcoming homestand is expected to attract season-best crowds for the playoff-bound Brewers and Dodgers. The Giants are on pace to sell out the Dodger games Saturday and Sunday, according to Russ Stanley, the team’s senior vice president of ticket sales.
“Those games are white-hot,” Stanley said. “The rivalry is as hot as ever.”
While overall attendance is down, TV ratings are up 70% compared with 2019 and 2020, according to numbers provided by NBC Sports Bay Area. TV was the only way for fans to watch while they weren’t allowed in the ballpark in 2020. Some got comfortable staying home.
“I got used to watching on TV,” said lifelong Giants fan Kevin Kirkman, 62, of El Sobrante. “But there’s nothing like being there with fans and getting to cheer, all the stuff you miss on TV. It’s a great thrill to be out there after missing all that time last year.”
Limited late-night trains with BART and Muni make things harder still. Options include leaving games early, paying big prices for rides home — or just not going.
“We used to take BART, but it’s been hard using public transportation to get to a ballgame,” Kirkman said. “Plus, it means getting on a train full of people you don’t know. COVID’s still an issue. Fans my age have to think twice about it.”
Tom O’Doul, 70, has been a regular at Giants games for decades but is considering giving up his season ticket.
“For most of the people I know who went a lot, they cut back,” O’Doul said. “Season-ticket holders around me are pulling out. A lot of it has to do with COVID, the fear and other reasons, and it’s expensive.
“Still, I’m a bit surprised about the attendance because they’re playing so well.”
After four straight losing seasons and fans unable to attend games in 2020, warming to this year’s Giants has taken time. Beyond Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, huge pieces of the championship era, the roster is far different from when fans previous last watched in person in 2019.
“A lot of the stars are gone,” Tobener said. “The M.O. under Farhan (Zaidi) is short-term contracts. As good as (Kevin) Gausman is, will an average fan go out to the next Gausman start like they did with (Tim) Lincecum and (Madison) Bumgarner?
“The characters from 2010 and those later years were larger-than-life personalities. This team really doesn’t have transcendent guys who’d appear on magazine covers or late-night shows.”
The more the Giants win, the more players will be embraced. LaMonte Wade Jr. emerged as a fan favorite, so much so that the Giants plan a Wade T-shirt giveaway Sept.14.
Another reason why fans may have stayed away could be reactions to majority owner Charles Johnson, who outraged many over his political donations, and manager Gabe Kapler and those Giants who took a knee last season to protest social injustice and police brutality.
But attendance is picking up. The team continues to win. There’s a buzz again at the ballpark.
“Everybody asks, ‘How long can they do this?’ ‘Is it sustainable?’” Kirkman said. “To me, who cares? Enjoy it while you can.”
John Shea is The San Francisco Chronicle’s national baseball writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @JohnSheaHey