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Convergence pays off for Jays at box office

BJ Birdie cheers as members of the Toronto Blue Jays run on to the field as they prepare to play against the Minnesota Twins on opening day during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre April 1, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Dave Sandford/Getty Images

The Toronto Blue Jays are last in the American League East, but their fans still love them.

Credit convergence as the Jays buck a trend by showing a strong growth in attendance for their home games while most other teams are in decline.

In fact, the Blue Jays are leading all major-league clubs at the gate with a hefty 56.5-per-cent increase in attendance through their first 11 games at the Rogers Centre when compared to the same period last season.

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That represents a hike of 8,655 a game, which gives Toronto an average attendance this season of 23,978, although that still ranks in baseball's lower echelon.

Still, the increase comes at a time when overall attendance is 1.3-per-cent lower than at the same point last year, with 19 of the 30 clubs reporting a drop.

Blue Jays executives are crediting the surge to a renewed marketing effort on behalf of Rogers Communications Inc., the club owner and Canadian communications giant which, for the first time, has been aggressively promoting the team over its wide range of media platforms.

"Whether it's using the radio, the magazines or on television with Sportsnet so far it has been working," Paul Beeston, the Blue Jays president, said on Thursday. "We can help them out, they can help us out."

Rogers is the owner of Sportsnet, which will broadcast live all 162 Blue Jays games this season. A 30-minute pre-game show, with Jamie Campbell and former Blue Jay Gregg Zaun, has been added to beef up the coverage.

Rogers also owns Maclean's, Canada's weekly newsmagazine, which last month took the unprecedented step of publishing a Blue Jays souvenir edition. It featured 27 pages of stories and pictures on the team. The magazine's writers and photographers were allowed access to the players not usually afforded to journalists outside the Rogers' realm. That included a photo essay of the luxury home shared by players Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia and Brett Lawrie at Clearwater Beach, Fla., close to the Blue Jays spring training facility in Dunedin.

Early returns are showing the effort has been worth it.

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Not only are the Blue Jays attracting more fans to their games, the national TV viewing audience has also experienced a healthy jump to an average of 541,000 a broadcast, up from 437,000 last season.

Returning home to begin a four-game series Friday night against the Detroit Tigers, the question now is if the Blue Jays will be able to maintain the fan interest if they continue to struggle on the diamond.

Toronto has lost four its past five to drop three games under .500 (14-17) with a 3-1 loss against the Rays in Tampa on Thursday.

The approach Rogers is taking with its baseball team is not surprising to sports-marketing experts, who said owners of pro sports franchises have to aggressively sell their goods in a competitive digital marketplace.

Many fans these days are just as content getting their sports fix watching the games on their widescreen high-definition flat screen in the basement or over their smart phones, as opposed to purchasing a ticket and watching it live.

"I don't think you can ever replace the live fan experience," said Sam Galet, co-managing director of IMG Canada, a worldwide sports-media organization. "I think sports is always about being there, being in the action."

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David Carter, the author of Monday Games, a book on the business of sports convergence, said pro sports franchises will have to master all aspects of integration in order to sell a live product or die a slow death.

"Nowadays, it's very hard to compel someone to go to 'just a game,' " he said. "You need to give fans another reason to show up beyond what might happen on the field.

"I think what it really boils down to is, in-venue technology has really become part of the fan expectations."

The Blue Jays are doing their part to keep pace.

For home games on Tuesday the club has a promotion known as Tweeting Tuesdays, in which fans have the opportunity to interact with the organization and other fans via the popular social-networking platform.

The Jays said they have been "shocked" by the program's growth with as many as 36,000 people tweeting for an average home game.

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