Two Million Baseball Fans Are Missing

Rob Manfred, MLB owners, players: we have a problem. Some of your ticket buyers are missing. In fact, nearly two million of them.

As we approach the official beginning of summer and the midpoint of the baseball season, attendance is down by about 2,000 per game, or 6.7%, relative to a year ago.

MLB attendance has generally and gradually been declining since its peak of 79.48 million fans in 2007. That was 32,696 per contest. The average per-game figure fell below 30,000 last year for the first time since 2003.

Of course, this year’s numbers were deflated early in the season, when April brought brutally cold weather to much of the country. Through the first two-plus weeks of the campaign, baseball was drawing about 2,700 fewer fans per game — or about 8.9% compared to the previous April, as noted by Jeff Passan.

So, for a while, it was unclear how much the unseasonable temperatures were responsible for the decline. Now, however, the weather has warmed in most places. What has happened in the two months since the frigid start to the season? The league is still failing to keep pace with last year. Over the last two months, from April 16 to June 14, MLB attendance is still off 2017’s pace by 6.1%, or a total of 1,376,770. The decline isn’t all weather related.

Said one anonymous league official to Passan in his April 16 piece, “The tanking scares me.”

Perhaps it should. Perhaps we are seeing its consequences in action.

On Thursday, this scribe wrote about how the Blue Jays, who had hoped to thread the needle and capture a Wild Card berth this season, ought to sell. They were one of the few teams in the AL — along with the Angels, Mariners, and Twins — that entered the season in something of a middle tier between the super teams and clear non-contenders.

Well, the Blue Jays now have less than 2% odds of making the postseason. In fact, only six AL teams have double-digit odds of making the postseason as this contributor noted in the aforementioned piece. Four of them — the Astros, Indians, Red Sox, and Yankees — have a 97% chance or better of reaching the postseason. The other nine teams have a 5% probability or worse. It’s seems unlikely that we’re going to have many dramatic postseason races. The AL East crown? Sure. But beyond that? Even the second Wild Card spot might not facilitate much competition with Shohei Ohtani’s status in doubt.

As I noted in the Blue Jays piece, one year ago to the day, only one team — the Astros — had a 90% chance of reaching the postseason. Ten AL teams had a double-digit probability or better. Again, this season it’s six.

Two years ago at roughly this same point in the season, 12 teams had double-digit probabilities, eight had a 30% or better chance. Three years ago, 10 teams had a 20% playoff probability or better in the AL, and eight teams, over half the league, had a 35% or greater chance. Four years ago, 10 teams also had a 20% or better chance of the reaching the postseason.

We might be seeing the effects of this age of Super Teams and Tankers in the American League standings. While MLB attendance is down 6.7% as a whole, attendance is down 9.7% in the Have-and-Have Not American League.

Consider the following table comparing the first 1008 games from 2017 to the first 1008 games from 2018 mined from Baseball-Reference data:

AL Attendance is Down
Tm 2017 G 2017 Attendance 2017 Attend/G 2018 G 2018 Att 2018 Attend/G YoY Diff YoY Diff/G
BAL 31 862,498 27,823 31 611,633 19,730 -250,865 -8,092
BOS 34 1,212,759 35,669 34 1,173,820 34,524 -38,939 -1,145
CHW 32 676,934 21,154 32 535,149 16,723 -141,785 -4,431
CLE 31 681,641 21,988 31 591,437 19,079 -90,204 -2,910
DET 39 1,108,748 28,429 39 819,040 21,001 -289,708 -7,428
HOU 33 958,819 29,055 33 1,165,990 35,333 207,171 6,278
KCR 33 865,496 26,227 33 667,139 20,216 -198,357 -6,011
LAA 35 1,267,078 36,202 35 1,297,581 37,074 30,503 872
MIN 34 754,095 22,179 34 754,384 22,188 289 8
NYY 33 1,243,818 37,691 33 1,370,017 41,516 126,199 3,824
OAK 36 655,937 18,220 36 548,259 15,229 -107,678 -2,991
SEA 35 867,120 24,775 35 848,833 24,252 -18,287 -522
TBR 31 450,753 14,540 31 415,833 13,414 -34,920 -1,126
TEX 36 1,164,564 32,349 36 1,003,070 27,863 -161,494 -4,486
TOR 35 1,354,039 38,687 35 954,428 27,269 -399,611 -11,417
Total 508 14,124,299 27,803 508 12,756,613 25,111 -1,367,686 -2,692

Eleven A.L. clubs have experienced attendance declines. In the entire majors, the Pirates, Tigers, Orioles, Marlins, Royals and Blue Jays are down 200,000-plus fans. Toronto has shed a staggering amount of fans from this point last season, selling nearly 400,000 fewer tickets. Since the Blue Jays play in a controlled environment, weather cannot explain any of the club’s ticket woes.

Of course, there are other factors at play — and perhaps a significant one is the secondary ticket market. That’s what Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro told Shi Davidi in an interview this spring with SportsNet.

SN: Then there’s the challenge of selling tickets after a difficult season.

MS: Again, that’s a little bit misleading. What happened when we were headed to the post-season, there was a huge amount of season-ticket sales for the following season, largely built around people who wanted access to post-season tickets. A lot of them were brokers and the secondary market — almost 50 per cent of our season-ticket holders were brokers last year, which is not uncommon for other teams.

As we progressed in our business model, we didn’t think it was advantageous to have 50 per cent of our tickets controlled by the secondary market. The main reason for that is a lot of tickets just get dumped and the integrity of pricing for season-ticket holders and the average fan goes way down and the most desirable tickets get sold at a maximum premium. We wanted to create pricing and packages that benefit our fans and provide them with alternatives and values that meet their individual needs. Our changes are meant to benefit them instead of the secondary market.

More and more people have taken to the secondary for ticket needs and some have made it a personal business endeavor by purchasing season tickets in large part not only to sell regular season tickets but to have access to purchase postseason tickets, which can be sold at a significant profit. Teams have begun to fight back, placing restrictions and reducing the ability for individuals to profit on the secondary market. Moreover, clubs typically are not reducing ticket prices at the box office.

There are also the well-known societal and technological challenges. High-definition cameras and flat-screen TVs have enhanced the quality of the in-home experience. Manfred has long been worried about attention spans, hence the focus on pace of play and amateur participation rates. If you play the game as a youth, you are more likely to be a consumer of it — and a ticket purchaser — in adulthood.

While baseball is still doing just fine as a $10 billion industry, while by some measures it has never been more popular, selling tickets and concessions is always going to be important. So this downturn should have the game’s attention. And while many factors are at play, while some are out of the game’s control, other factors like competition and pace are among the controllable factors. Perhaps more than anything this year, particularly in the AL, fans are responding to the drama that is absent from the field

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Attendance is down 6.7% across the league? Well Rickey is still going to games so it’s only down 5.7%