MLB Attendance: Lower Than Ever?

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 03: Tyson Ross #66 of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the Cleveland Indians at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 3, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Attendance is down. That’s not in dispute. The New York Times has figured it out, the Washington Post is on the case, and the New York Post is providing the calm, measured narrative that we’re used to.

Actually, the numbers might be in dispute too. But let’s assume that attendance is down. Let’s assume some sort of sea change. It would be a big deal, though I’m not going to pretend to know what a 1% or 2% drop in attendance league-wide would mean financially. It would probably be a bit of a mess. Financial aspects of the game aren't my bag -- I’m more interested in seeing if Denard Span can stay in that little box of the top WAR performers in the American League on the Baseball Reference home page.

But when the numbers are getting hashed and the op-eds are getting thrown around -- is baseball in trouble? -- all I can think about is what baseball used to be like. Here's what the attendance was like 35 years ago (1976):

 

Tm Attendance ▾ Attend/G
NYY 2,012,434 25,155
BOS 1,895,846 23,406
KCR 1,680,265 20,744
DET 1,467,020 18,338
TEX 1,164,982 14,382
BAL 1,058,609 13,069
MIL 1,012,164 12,496
CAL 1,006,774 12,429
CLE 948,776 12,010
CHW 914,945 11,437
OAK 780,593 9,637
MIN 715,394 8,832
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/10/2011.

 

The Cleveland Indians, for example, have the lowest attendance-per-game totals this season in the American League at 14, 275. That’s the lead-in to any story about declining attendance. But if you extrapolate that to 81 games, it would be 1,156,275. This ignores that the weather in Ohio wasn’t exactly baseball-friendly in April, but even if that were to be the final attendance, it would be in the top-half of a 12-team league in 1976. And in the Golden Era? Here’s 1951:

 

Tm Attendance ▾
NYY 1,950,107
CLE 1,704,984
CHW 1,328,234
BOS 1,312,282
DET 1,132,641
WSH 695,167
PHA 465,469
SLB 293,790
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/10/2011.


Obviously, you can’t compare eras this easily. There are more people now, metropolitan areas have changed ... there are a lot of reasons why attendance figures are different. The narrative is that baseball might be in trouble right now because of declining attendance. And depending how you define trouble, maybe that’s true. If you create a budget that's counting on two trillion tickets sold, and you only sell one trillion tickets, you’re probably going to be in trouble. But one thing the narrative of attendance decline misses is that baseball has always been played in front of empty seats. Go through Baseball Reference and pick years at random before the '90s. Here’s 1930:

 

Tm Attendance ▾
NYY 1,169,230
PHA 721,663
DET 649,450
WSH 614,474
CLE 528,657
BOS 444,045
CHW 406,123
SLB 152,088
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/10/2011.

Again, there are a million differences between then and now, but the point is that less-than-capacity crowds are like Cracker Jacks, doubleheaders, and pepper-playing being expressly prohibited by law. It's a part of baseball. Empty seats are part of the deal with a sport that plays 81 games in a stadium each year; expecting raucous crowds for each one is unrealistic. It’s easy to forget now, as we’re used to new ballpark after new ballpark with the resulting attendance bump that the new parks bring. We live in an era where 2,000,000 fans drawn in a season isn't a big deal

That doesn't necessarily mean baseball is flush with cash -- not when it's all going to Vernon Wells! -- but it does speak to baseball's popularity. For a couple of decades, more people have been going to games than ever before. A 1% or 2% decline in attendance might not be good for the coffers, but baseball has a lot of attendance to give back to get back to where it was.

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