Worrying about MLB's attendance figures

Marc Serota

Attendance is actually down a bit this season, and Ken Rosenthal's got all the details:

Take away the crappy weather — and the crappy team almost no one wants to watch, the Miami Marlins — and attendance might be at the same level it was a year ago.

Instead, attendance is down more than 2 percent from the same date last season, according to MLB. And as the accompanying chart shows, five large-market teams — the Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox, Cubs and Phillies — rank among the nine clubs that have suffered the biggest drop-offs, according to STATS LLC.


The most troubling developments, meanwhile, are in the larger markets.

The Yankees are down 2,576 per game, the Red Sox 4,554, the Cubs 5,116, the Phillies 6,656. The figures might be mere snapshots in time rather than signals of larger declines — several Yankees stars are injured, the Red Sox are coming off a disappointing season, the Cubs are rebuilding, the Phillies sputtering.

Then again, the rationale for the Phillies, in particular, goes only so far: The Dodgers are up 4,381 per game and the Angels 1,028.

I think it takes some time for expectations to catch up with performance. The Dodgers (as Rosenthal notes) are still riding the wave of their new ownership and its attendant payroll binge, and the Angels made a big splash last winter when they signed Josh Hamilton.

Meanwhile, look at those other teams. The Yankees seemed to revel in their newfound stinginess, while the Red Sox were coming off a last-place season and didn't make any high-profile moves. Cubs rebuilding, Phillies lost. I'm surprised the attendance has dropped as much as it has for those clubs, but it wasn't hard to predict that there would be drops. Maybe the drops are so large because those clubs had so much room to fall?

Generally speaking, we're looking a small fluctuation this season, most of which can be explained by the shifting fortunes of the Marlins and a few other clubs. I wouldn't draw any sweeping conclusions, because-- hey, here's Ken Rosenthal again!

The larger question, though, is whether too many fans are priced out — and whether even some fans who can afford tickets would prefer the hassle-free experience of watching games at home on large-screen, high-definition televisions.

Make no mistake, baseball needs those fans in the park, even in an era when clubs are drawing record revenues from regional and national TV networks. The sheer volume of games makes baseball more dependent upon attendance than other sports. If fans stop coming to the ballpark, they eventually will stop watching the sport on television, too.

Again, it’s far too early to draw sweeping conclusions ...

I agree! Of course the problem with citing things like expensive tickets and brilliantly colorful televisions is that those things were almost exactly as expensive and brilliant just one year ago. We wouldn't expect them to suddenly have a significant impact on attendance.

Which isn't to say they won't, someday. I don't know if Rosenthal's right about declining attendance leading to declining TV audiences. One thing I've noticed about baseball teams, though? They seem dedicated to the idea that fans want the ballpark experience to feel more like the television experience: lots of commercial time, advertisements from wall to wall, and loud noises.

That seems backward to me. It seems to me that the trick to getting people to leave their rumpus rooms is giving them something they can't get in their rumpus rooms. Especially if you're charging them $60 per ticket for the privilege.

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