Surprise! Mets say ticket sales on rise

Mets pitchers (L-R) Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez, Manny

Mets pitchers (L-R) Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez, Manny Acosta and Jenrry Mejia. (Feb. 17, 2011) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

Pitchers and catchers at last returned to pitching and catching in Port St. Lucie on Wednesday, a reminder to Mets fans that despite the storm clouds over the team, it soon will play meaningful baseball again.

That means there are tickets to be bought and sold, an old-fashioned transaction the Mets must conduct even amid the numbingly complicated legal and financial matters its owners face.

So how's that going, Dave Howard?

"I would characterize it as encouraging overall,'' the Mets' executive VP for business operations said on the phone from Florida, and he sounded as if he meant it.

While declining to offer specifics - preferring a "qualitative'' update rather than a quantitative one - Howard said season-ticket renewals are "substantially higher than where we were last year.''

How is that possible? Howard said the improving economy has helped, as have decreases in prices and increases in perks for season-ticket holders.

In November, the team announced it would reduce ticket prices an average of 14 percent - covering 62 percent of Citi Field seats - with season-ticket holders getting 10 percent off individual game prices.

The Mets added a variety of perks for season subscribers, such as batting practice at the stadium on non-game days.

The latest marketing salvo came last week, when the team announced five-, 11- and 17-game packs that include a ticket to one of the biggest attractions on the calendar - Opening Day or the Yankees series - and add a free bonus ticket. Ordering fees were waived on those packages through next week.

Howard said response has been "almost surprisingly strong'' during the past week, especially for the five-game plan, which he said is "really, really moving.''

Whether all this results in improved attendance overall, and in needed revenue for the team, will depend largely on how the Mets perform.

At a minimum, the hope is to put a brake on the alarming decline in paid attendance last year.

In 2008, its final year at Shea Stadium, the team totaled 4,042,047. In '09, its first season at Citi Field, which has a much smaller capacity, the figure was 3,154,270. Last year it fell to 2,559,738.

On another business front, Howard said new and existing sponsors have responded after being given "a more balanced perspective on the facts and reality of the situation'' of the team's financial state.

"It's not as dire as some of the media reports seem to portray it,'' Howard said.

Among those he said have renewed in the past month are Chevrolet, McDonald's, Subway, Rums of Puerto Rico and Fox News Channel. A-1 Moving signed on as a new sponsor.

Howard said many of the fans with whom his sales staff has spoken have been relatively upbeat.

"We've had some challenges over the past couple of years in terms of the economy and on-field performance,'' he said, "but I think people realize there is definitely a new energy and more hopefulness, and I think that is starting to translate.

"They sense this team is going to be a hungry, hustling, scrappy team that is going to win its fair share of games and be a fun team to watch.''

For the sake of their bottom line, and their future, the Mets had better hope so.