2011 was a lonely year for fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The entire city seemed to sour on owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, as evidence in their messy divorce suggested the team's owners were using the Dodgers to fund a lifestyle lavish even by Hollywood standards. Their divorce forced the Dodgers into bankruptcy.
On opening day last year, Giants fan Brian Stow was beaten within an inch of his life, and families started avoiding Chavez Ravine.
Most of all, the Dodgers weren't winning.
Ticket sales, which once ranked at or near the top in all of baseball, plummeted 17 percent, the biggest drop for any team. Nearly 8,000 fewer tickets were sold per game, and it appeared many people who did buy tickets didn't show up. And when you have the largest stadium in baseball, capable of holding 56,000 fans, the empty seats seemed endless.
"It was difficult to see people struggle to decide if they wanted to come out or if they didn't want to come out," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said.
"It was tough as a player," outfielder Andre Ethier said, "because you want to go out there and do well, and play well, and if you play well, the fans are going to come out. We just weren't doing quite what we should have to put more butts in the seats."
But 2012 is shaping up into something of a comeback for one of baseball's most storied teams. Suddenly, there are "more butts in the seats."
Ticket sales are up 13 percent, averaging 41,000 a game. That puts the Dodgers in sixth place in MLB ticket sales (Philadelphia is in first). More importantly, sales appear to be accelerating. The Dodgers have sold 1.76 million tickets in the first half, leading up to the All-Star Game in Kansas City, meaning the season total could top 3 million. Even so, that's still down considerably from the 3.9 million tickets sold in 2007.
"Night and day," said outfielder Tony Gwynn, Jr., about the crowd in Dodger Stadium this summer. "I think obviously when you win some ball games, and you're competitive, people want to spend some money and come watch you play."
The Dodgers are currently in first place in the National League West, but their play has been erratic, and the team has suffered without injured slugger Matt Kemp.
A management change has also helped.
"It's a lot better now that they've got new ownership," said longtime fan James Milton of the consortium which bought the Dodgers out of bankruptcy for an eye popping $2.15 billion.
"This year, we made a point to start coming back," said fan Monica Amaya, sporting a Dodgers jersey before seeing the team play the Reds last week.
Enrique Figueroa used to come to as many as ten games a year. Last year he only went to one, where the Dodgers lost badly to the San Francisco Giants.
"It was really depressing because you could hear more Giant chants than Dodger chants," he said.
He stopped coming to games. "I boycotted because of the McCourts." Now, Figueroa is back. "I think they have a good chance of winning the west."
General Manager Ned Colletti agrees, even comparing this year's team to the last group of Dodgers to win the World Series.
"It's got a chance to be like the '88 team," he said. "A lot of players were down, there were a lot of people who were hurt, but the team continued to fight through." As for 2012, "We've asked guys to play a lot more than they thought they were going to play ... you know what? We'll get healthy the second half, and we'll make a run of it."
If that proves true, ticket sales will take care of themselves.
- By CNBC's Jane Wells