Dickey: Giants must learn to trust fans

The Giants’ biggest problem is that they don’t trust their fans.

From the opening of their park in China Basin, the Giants have set Bay Area attendance records, but ownership and management have always been fearful that it wouldn’t continue. Over and over, I heard from club executives that attendance would fall in any season in which they did not field a contending team.

That belief seemed logical, based on history. California sports fans are notoriously fickle because there are so many other things to do. When he owned the Giants, Bob Lurie said that his biggest competition came not from other teams but from Carmel, Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe.

Attendance fluctuated wildly at Candlestick Park, depending on the quality of the team. Mediocre teams in the ’70s drove seasonal attendance down into the 500,000 range in mid-decade, but in 1978, attendance rose by nearly a million — because the Giants led the league for a good part of the season.

So, the present-day Giants have attempted to field a contender every year, mostly by filling in around Barry Bonds with veterans. That worked for some time. Through 2004, the message was how few meaningless games the Giants had played since 1997 because they had always been at least in contention for a playoff berth.

Haven’t heard much about that lately. The Giants haven’t been in the playoffs since 2004. This year, they’re having a hard time even contending for fourth place in their division. But they’re still setting attendance records.

It’s become clear that basing a plan for AT&T Park on what happened at Candlestick was akin to predicting summer temperatures for San Francisco based on Athens, just because they’re on roughly the same latitude.

Going to games at Candlestick was a generally unpleasant experience, so only the real die-hards came on a regular basis. The casual fans came only when the team was in contention.

It’s totally different at AT&T Park. The Giants did a great job with this park. There are a variety of food choices, there are HD television screens behind the seats around the park (and the Giants put the Warriors’ playoff games on them) and there are children’s playgrounds behind the left-field seats.

All this has created an entirely different fan base, one which will pay the high ticket prices and buy $8 beers.

Because the press box is so close to the action, I can feel the excitement of the crowd, and I also frequently walk around the park during games, talking to fans.

There’s a continual buzz throughout games — but it isn’t necessarily about the games. The people at the park are enjoying the total experience. Of course, they want to see the Giants win, but they’re not devastated if they lose.

If the Giants would level with their fans, tell them that they have some serious rebuilding to do, I think they could hold on to many of these fans.

Their attendance would drop, but not precipitously. They’d hold on to most of their season-ticket holders because they wouldn’t want to miss out when the Giants are good again.

So, the choice is up to the Giants. They can continue on with their existing strategy, which is failing horribly, or they can change course.

But first, they have to learn to trust their fans.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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