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April 19, 2011

The Payoff Pitch

Plenty of Good Seats Still Available

by Neil deMause

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The young baseball season is already shaping up to be lots of things—the Year of the Great Red Sox Collapse, maybe, or the Year of the Exploding Appendices—but one theme that might actually survive small-sample goofiness to have some legs is the Year the Fans Went Away. MLB attendance has been gradually sliding ever since its peak in 2007, but the early signs this year have been pretty alarming:

  • The Yankees, after their customary Opening Day sellout, set a record-low attendance mark in their second game of the season, with 41,462 tickets sold. They promptly broke that mark the next afternoon against the Tigers (40,574), then again the next night vs. the Twins (40,311), then again the night after that (40,267) before finally pulling out of their nosedive and leveling off just above the 40,000 mark. Still, their average attendance of 41,686, while phenomenal for most other teams, would be lowest in the Bronx since 2001.
  • On the other end of the country (and the Playoff Odds standings), the Mariners saw ticket sales plummet after their home opener, with attendance totals that went: 45,727, 30,309, 21,128, 13,056, 15,500, and finally 12,407 on Wednesday night, setting an all-time Safeco Field low. (The only thing that stopped the skid was the team taking off for Kansas City, where they played to a cozy crowd of 8,811.) At their current rate, the M's would fail to draw two million fans not just for the first time in Safeco history, but for the first time since becoming playoff contenders back at the Kingdome in 1995.
  • The Indians may have started off gangbusters on the field, but they continued their decade-long slide at the ticket window, setting an all-time Progressive Field low in their second game (9,853),  then dipping even lower in their third (8,726). When Manny Acta's finest lifted their record to a division-leading 10-4 on Saturday, it was before a paying crowd of 10,714.
  • Other teams setting record lows at their current homes include the Braves last Tuesday (13,865), the Cardinals two weeks ago Monday (32,007), and the Twins last Wednesday (36,286). The Mets barely missed a record,  drawing just 24,865 to see the bullpen blow a 4-2 lead to the Rockies last Monday, just above their Citi Field nadir of 24,661 last September. (All this is ticket sales, remember, not turnstile count, so if you were one of the other 500 people there with me to see the Mets take on the Pirates on Tornado Day last fall, your eyes weren't playing tricks on you.)

There are, as you might expect, lots of hypotheses for why fans have been staying away in unprecedented droves this spring. For one thing, it was the earliest start to the season in major-league history, so it's possible they were just steering clear of cold weather (though the first two record-setting Yankees games came on sunny afternoons with temperatures in the 50s, it was 68 degrees in Atlanta, and Seattle, last I checked, has a roof. Other theories include the crappy economy (and its flip side, high ticket prices), the lure of hi-def TV screens, or the rise of StubHub making it too easy for fair-weather fans to wait until the last minute for a nice day or a favorable pitching matchup.

Just how bad has attendance really been this season? To see, we need to actually compare attendance-to-date through the same number of home games this year and last year--ticket sales always go up in the summer months, so otherwise you'd be comparing apples to oranges. Fortunately, the good folks at Baseball-Reference have set up a page to do just that.

Some trends are immediately apparent. First off, attendance is indeed down across baseball: by just under 700 fans per game, or about 2.4 percent. That's right on target with the pace set from 2007 through 2010, when MLB attendance fell a cumulative 8.08 percent. It's worth noting, though, that thanks to the advent of a Thursday Opening Day this season, the 2011 sample to date includes more weekend games than the 2010 one; the dropoff sat at more than 4 percent before this weekend's games, and will likely rise again as we hit the mid-week attendance doldrums again the next few days.

Second, not all teams are suffering. If your ballclub made it to the World Series last year, for instance, you're doing bang-up business at the box office: the Rangers and Giants top the list of teams with the biggest attendance jumps so far this season. (And the Giants no doubt would be doing even better if they had more tickets to sell: they've sold 99.7 percent of their seats so far this year.) This should come as no surprise, since it's long been the case that teams get their biggest bump in attendance the year after a successful season, as fans rush to the box office to see what they missed.

That said, an awful lot of teams have seen dramatic drops so far this season. In addition to the single-game record-breakers listed above, there are the Dodgers, whose fans are reputedly either seeking revenge on owner Frank McCourt for his messy divorce or afraid for their lives; the Rays, who have drawn only an average of only 17,491 fans thus far to the Trop, a fall of 28 percent; and the Cubs, whose fans seem to have taken The Onion to heart, leaving Wrigley Field more than one-fifth empty so far this season. All told, a dozen teams have seen four-figure drops in attendance so far this year, and the Indians might have gotten there if only they had more fans to lose in the first place.

So, is this simply a matter of a still-stumbling economy going up against an industry that stubbornly insists on raising ticket prices every year? Team Marketing Report's annual Fan Cost Index shows that the average MLB ticket price crept up 1.2 percent last year, though some of the low-drawing teams are actually coming off price cuts (Cubs, Mets, Indians, Rays), and some other teams have hiked prices without any apparent ill effects. (Anyone have a clue why the Tigers and D-Backs thought it was a good idea to raise prices 10 percent last year? Are there really that many Brad Penny and J.J. Putz fans?)

It's hard to tell much from official ticket prices these days, though, when so many fans end up buying their tickets on the secondary market. For a team like the Yankees, close to half the stadium is up for resale, and other teams aren't far off that pace. Not that street prices for tickets differing from list prices is especially new—I remember getting to the Bronx in October 1981 and finding that the line for World Series tickets already wrapped around Yankee Stadium, then buying bleacher tickets to Game 1 from a slightly shady character for the then-outrageous price of $20 apiece. What's happened with the advent of StubHub and its ilk, though, is that they've made every fan their own scalper, where half the fans buy in bulk early, figuring they'll dump tickets later, while the other half sit and wait for bargains.

The secondary market has mostly worked out great for MLB so far—it allows teams to goose season-ticket sales by assuring fans they can dump tickets to games they don't want to attend without risking those pesky trips to the pokey, while simultaneously giving club execs free market survey data about what price point to set for tickets, often on a series-by-series basis. (The Mets in particular seem to be treating variable pricing like an extreme sport, with a bewildering 296 different price levels depending on seating section and date.) But there is risk here, too, as once fans realize that cheap seats are readily available, ticket demand can go into freefall.

For an illustration, consider the Parable of the Tribe. On April 4, 2001, the Indians sold out 43,000-seat Jacobs Field for the 455th consecutive time, then a major league record. (The team would later retire the number 455.) The next night, only 32,763 fans showed up to see the Indians pursue what would end up being their sixth division title in seven years, breaking the string. Once fans realized that they no longer had to buy tickets in January, they stopped buying them at all, especially once it became clear that the product on the field was declining: two years later, following a 3rd-place finish and the departure of Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon, Cleveland was selling barely half its tickets, ranking 12th out of 14 AL teams in attendance. Despite a brief attendance blip during the brief Sabathia-Hafner-Sizemore glory days, the Indians have never again approached those lofty sales figures.

Do other MLB teams need to worry that the slipping attendance so far is a sign that their ticket bubbles are similarly popping? Precedent from the NBA and NHL, whose weaker fan bases and higher average ticket prices made them more immediately susceptible to the effects of the economic crash, isn't too promising: those leagues have been largely able to keep ticket sales from slipping too badly, though sometimes by resorting to three-for-the-price-of-one deals or handing out free tickets with purchases of even stranger things. It's also worth noting that another sector of the entertainment industry—arena rock concerts—suffered a full-on bursting ticket bubble last summer, then subsequently slashed prices to lure fans back.

Similar trends are starting to show up in MLB: the Yankees quietly introduced $5 days last year, the Mets somewhat less quietly offered half-price tickets for all mid-week home games, and several teams are now offering discounted kids' tickets. At the very least, it seems that, after years of wondering when teams would hit a ceiling for how much cash they could shake loose from fans, the ticket price wave may finally have crested. That would be great news for fans who've increasingly found themselves without the wherewithal to afford seats anywhere below the rafters—though it could also put an end to the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats prosperity that has helped create labor peace in baseball for the last decade, leading to the kind of mayhem we're now seeing in the NBA contract talks. But hey, you can't make a revolution without breaking a few low-attendance records.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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fieldofdreams

Interesting article...Olney speculated about this the other day. I think he is correct that the lack of "connectivity" at games is hurting attendance for the marginal fan. People like to tweet about where they are, post pics of their seats to Facebook, etc. I have yet to be to at a major sports arena with a consistent 3G connection. Free wi-fi throughout the stadium might help with this...I was at opening day in Atlanta and could not "check-in" through the At-Bat app b/c the system was flooded.

Apr 19, 2011 07:00 AM
rating: -1
 
jasemilw4

That's a great point. Lack of wi-fi, 3G, 4G, is a fixable problem.

As a Cubs fan, I can tell you that the lower attendance is mostly due to (perceived) team performance. Few bleacher bums expect much from the team after last year. And many of us, already feel we've spent too much on the our team over the past 10 years--when ticket prices did increase pretty much every year. Last year's ticket increase (related to tax) was huge. People are still bitter about that. And about that fact that our highest paid players don't seem to want to be there everday either.

Nice article.

Apr 19, 2011 07:17 AM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny

"I think he is correct that the lack of "connectivity" at games is hurting attendance for the marginal fan. People like to tweet about where they are, post pics of their seats to Facebook, etc."

Yeah, they wouldn't want to watch the game or anything like that ...

Apr 19, 2011 18:51 PM
rating: 2
 
Eddie

Very good article. I believe it is a combination of many reasons, but for myself, it mainly comes down to ticket prices vs. value. Sorry, but with 162 games and no one game (or even a series) mattering much, it's just not worthwhile to shell out $50+ for two people on a consistent basis.

Furthermore, you go to the games, see half the stadium empty, many good seats sitting empty while you paid your $50 for crappy ones, it kinda dissuades you from further investment.

I've actually been amazed the past several years at how many people were going to the games, in spite of the recession and rising prices and all. I guess things are finally normalizing.

Apr 19, 2011 08:14 AM
rating: 4
 
Peter7899

Speaking from personal experience, I haven't bought tickets from the box office at Wrigley since 2009. The tickets on StubHub go for a fraction of face value, and you can buy them same day if you want to. With so many cheap tickets available, why go if the weather is going to be bad to see mediocre baseball? Just wait till tomorrow and see if the weather is better since there is no shortage of cheap tickets.

Apr 19, 2011 09:13 AM
rating: 1
 
jrbdmb

In Philadelphia, the Phillies are selling out in the winter - making it almost impossible to plan ahead and discouraging any walk-up crowd. But then you see 3000 - 4000 tickets available for every game on StubHub. And you learn as I have that the best thing to do is wait until the last minute to get tickets.

Perhaps that's part of the reason the Phillies surprised almost everyone by going after Cliff Lee - they know if the aura around the teams fades a bit and fans no longer need to buy tickets in February for an August game (save for StubHub) the attendance in Philly could crater rapidly.

Apr 19, 2011 12:06 PM
rating: 0
 
Peter7899

It all is tied back to a winning club these days, or at least the perception of a winning club. You were lucky to get tickets off Craigslist or StubHub for face value at Wrigley back in 2008 or early 2009. Wrigleyville was packed those seasons to watch the Cubs win. Now, with virtually no shot at contention, Wrigleyville is a ghost town. You'll still see packed crowds on weekend day games because Wrigley is such a tourist attraction, but until the team starts winning again, the weekday crowds are going to be sparse.

It's a catch 22 for me. It's cheap to see games, which is nice, but still why pay good money to watch a bad team? I can do that from my living room for free.

Apr 19, 2011 13:02 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

I haven't done a marketing survey or anything, but I think one thing teams are learning from StubHub is that there is a *huge* disparity between what the market will bear for a good game and for a bad game. For generations, teams have charged more or less the same price regardless of opponent, time of year, time of week, etc., but it turns out that people (enough people to fill a stadium, anyway) will pay through the nose to see a Yankees-Mets game or a Red Sox-anybody game, but wouldn't take tickets to a meaningless September weeknight matchup even if you paid them.

The problem, as you rightly note, Peter, is that letting the market set prices means only people with money to burn can go to good games, while those of us on budgets can only see crappy teams at crappy times. I'm not entirely sure that's a good direction to be headed in.

Apr 19, 2011 17:27 PM
 
NYY0012

The Yankees have been doing the $5 days for a while now, since at least 2003. Probably even further back. They never advertised them because they'd always sell out quickly.

But the point still holds, they're selling many sections at discounts through the e-savers on yankees.com. Plus they made a deal with Modell's in Manhattan to sell all tickets at 50% off day of game.

Though the Yankees are interesting because they don't seem to care about the attendance drop. They've priced the stadium to where season ticket & partial season ticket holders are giving them their target revenue before a game is even played. Any walkups are gravy to them.

Apr 19, 2011 08:16 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

They still want to fill the stadium so they can sell them those $12.50 beers, though, especially since they own their own concessions. Which is, I'm sure, why they do the Modell's deal and the like.

Apr 19, 2011 17:28 PM
 
dianagram

With gasoline at $4/gallon and rising, how many fans are willing to drive to the stadia to spend $20+ to park there?

(anyone have info on # of parking spaces around each stadium, broken out by team-owned/privately-owned)

Apr 19, 2011 09:36 AM
rating: 0
 
Deadheadbrewer

I'll tell you why I stay away from the major-league ballpark--time. The games (which I watch every last pitch of when in attendance, come hell or high water) sometimes reach three hours and twenty minutes for a 4-3 contest. Add in having to leave for the park an hour before the game (even though I live pretty close to the Twins stadium), plus an hour after the game to battle out of the stadium and the downtown area, and I now have spent five to six hours to attend the game. On a weeknight one doesn't get home until 11:00-ish, and had to leave for the park at 6:00 for a 7:00 game.

Then I begin thinking about the parking costs and hassles, and $7.50 for someone to open and pour a 12-oz. bottle of Summit craft beer (which had to come all of eight miles from St.Paul brewery to the stadium) for me, and I say, "forget it."

Apr 19, 2011 09:56 AM
rating: 4
 
johnmeister

Not that I think a Yankee game is cheap, but I will say that it can be done cheap. You buy a $5 ticket (or some other section being dumped on Stubhub) and take the subway back and forth ($5). The whole evening costs $10. You can bring in food from the nearby places so you don't even have to pay for the hot dogs and sodas.

Apr 19, 2011 12:50 PM
rating: 1
 
ddufourlogger

It really amazes me that more marketing study has apparently NOT been done by MLB teams on this. For me, it's all pretty simple. I would go to more MLB games if they cost less, period. Most of us just cannot afford to regularly buy $30+ tickets, pay $20 to park, pay $7 for a dog and $7 more for a beer...and that's just for YOU. If I want to bring my wife and 4 kids....forget it. One MLB game a year is all the family gets as a whole.

A fantastic example for why MLB is just screaming for a salary cap. If I'm an MLB owner, I see immediately that I can fill my stadium if the ballpark experience is more affordable. For an example, 40,000 fans a night at $10 a head is still far better for the team than 20K at $20 a head, because of concessions, merchandise sales, general team interest, and it all just snowballs from there with local business, media, etc. The more people a team has for fans, the better, in every way.

So, work backwards, MLB. Find out where your price point is to regularly fill the ballpark, and from THAT figure out what you can pay players and run the franchise and still turn an acceptable profit. Of course, this just scratches the surface of the situation, but the bottom line is the system needs work.

You want MLB to again be the Great American Pastime? Get the fans to the games.

Apr 19, 2011 11:43 AM
rating: -2
 
jrbdmb

Unless they are idiots, the teams executives are already doing what they think is best to maximize the profits from attendance. They may make mistakes from time to time (see the Yankees $2500 home plate seats for an example), but then they should make the necessary corrections.

I'd argue that halving the ticket prices won't double attendance, and then you lose the $200K from fans who were going to show up anyways. I'm sure the Pirates and Indians would love a sellout every night, but what would tickets have to sell for to do - $5? $2? Free? Or perhaps you just lower the prices in the upper deck, but then you have to make sure not to cannibalize sales of more expensive seats.

I guess that I'm just saying that maximizing ticket sales doesn't necessarily maximize team profit, or you would see more teams slashing prices now to fill up their stadium.

Apr 19, 2011 12:19 PM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

I wrote a whole chapter about this in "Baseball Between the Numbers," but: a salary cap would *not* affect ticket prices in the least. Both historical and theoretical evidence shows that teams set ticket prices in an attempt to maximize revenue; player payroll, being a fixed cost relative to ticket sales, doesn't factor into it at all.

Apr 19, 2011 17:33 PM
 
baserip4

Two years ago the Orioles had dollar weekend for nearly the entire upper deck. One dollar. The stands were empty. You can bring your own food, and park for $10 (or take transit for a fraction of that). For many teams and many fans, the real 'cost' of attendance isn't the ticket; it's the opportunity cost of giving up an entire evening of doing something else to watch a crappy baseball team.

That said, this is the first time I've noticed that Oriole games have gotten expensive. Prime games now cost $95 for field box tickets (lowest level between the bases), and even lower level left field seats run $30 for non-prime games. There are still a few sections where you can get decent value, but the most recent price hikes changed the equation significantly.

Apr 19, 2011 13:26 PM
rating: 0
 
diceshooter60

I'm soured on going to the A's games mostly due to the draconian security searches just to get into the game. I can't bring in a bag with my scorebook and stuff because the bag is too big. Its not even as big as a shopping bag. But I get hassled about it every time. Funny, in the California and Pacific Coast Leagues, they don't care about the bag.
My other primary beef is that the radio broadcast is delayed. I like to listen to the game while at the game and MLB is so terrified that a four letter word may slip out onto the air that they ruin it for fans at the game.
I guess too the obstructed view seats in center field since the Coliseum caved to the Raiders and built Mt Davis doesn't brighten up my A's fan experience either.
Bluntly, I'd rather drive to Stockton or Sacramento and watch the Ports and Rivercats. They seem to want my business more than the A's do.

Apr 20, 2011 01:52 AM
rating: 0
 
hessshaun

Went to three stadiums last year for games and basically sat in the same general location. I personally wanted to sit in the OF at all three games, close to the wall.

Seattle- RF, three seats behind Ichiro against KC. $20/per.

Texas, left center bleachers next to the visiting pen against Tor in April. 6 rows off the field $10/per.

Philadelphia- 13 rows off LF behind Raul, $85. I guess that helped sign Cliff Lee?

Apr 20, 2011 05:44 AM
rating: 1
 
BERSMR

With last year's run to the World Series, Texas really has de-coupled from what is going on elsewhere at the moment. The secondary market has been very tight. With only a few hundred tickets left by game day there is never a point at which supply so outnumbers demand that the market crashes. Instead the trend in the days approaching games has been for prices to increase. That may not continue throughout the season, but for right now the smart move if you want nice seats to a weekday Rangers game is to buy well in advance.

Apr 20, 2011 07:51 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Mike Ferrin
Guest Commenter

I know the early numbers are similar to last season, in runs per game, but could a decline in offense, and by extension, home runs, be a factor as well?

Apr 20, 2011 11:17 AM
 
bravejason

I went to a Braves game earlier this year and got caught up in really bad traffic that really dampened my enthusiasm for going to another game, at least for the near term.

To get from home to exit on interstate took about an hour and half due to a repaving project on the interstates going into town. Then once I got off it took me a half hour to go from the state capital to the Stadium, a distance that isn't more than a mile or so. They had the police directing traffic, but something was fouled up and the lane I was in just wouldn't move. Got to the game in 5th inning. The bad part is that while the nice dugout level tickets I had were free, courtesy of a relative, I had to drive two hours round trip to pick them up. Essentially what happened is that I had to drive one hour in crappy Atlanta traffic for every inning of baseball that I watched.

I almost hate to say it, but watching the game on TV provides all kinds of luxuries that you don't get at the stadium: convenience, instant replay, 'free' food and drinks, perfect 'weather', commentary*, etc.

*Some of you probably mute the TV because you don't like your announcers, but I personally think that announcers provide an overall net benefit to the telecast.

Apr 20, 2011 15:08 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

I've long had a thought that in a similar way to how winning tends to lead to higher attendance, the same may be true - to an extent - in reverse. If teams could find a way to fill seats, they would put themselves in a greater position to spend revenue and develop a team worth supporting. Not yet sure of how I would test that though.

Apr 20, 2011 19:34 PM
rating: 0
 
MWSchneider

Attendence is down even in the NFL so it's obviously not just a baseball issue. It's a host of factors--the economy, the cost/time involved in going to a game, the perceived quality or lack thereof of the product, and the lousy weather early in the season--who wants to sit out in 30 degree weather to watch a baseball game? Also, some of the drop may simply be returning to more historically normal levels after years of bumps caused by new stadiums. The idea that a salary cap will cause owners to lower ticket prices is silly--sports teams are essentially monopolies and they are able to set their prices above their marginal costs, ie, their ticket prices are not based on their costs but on the level that is most profitable. Even if you went back to the reserve clause, ticket prices would not revert back to 1960s levels.

Let's face it, too, it is often a pain to go to games. Most stadiums are far away, require driving through traffic or taking crowded public transportation. It takes a real effort to go to games. And, unlike basketball or hockey arenas, some baseball stadiums are in areas where there is nothing else to do. For example, here in Washington, the basketball/hockey arena is in a vibrant part of town, with restaurants, bars, etc. so that you can really enjoy the evening. The Nats' stadium is in the middle of nowhere; all you can do is get on the subway and get the hell out of there.

Apr 21, 2011 07:12 AM
rating: 0
 
naqa23

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the actual change in the game. Last year teams averaged 4.4 runs per game, that was the lowest production in the last 10 years. Since 2007 the totals have dropped each year. Albeit cold weather, teams are off to a 4.2 average right now. Now to casual fans they certainly don't want to go to a game and watch a 2-1 pitchers duel.

Take a look at the superstars in the league now, they are all pretty much pitchers. I mean if you ask a fan who the best batter was on the WS Champion Giants, do you think they would actually say Aubrey Huff? The best known player from the Giants right now is a Closer?

Obviously the economy has played a factor, but to what degree? I live in the Boston area and can't touch bleacher seats for less than $30. I watch a ton of games from around the leagues on MLB TV and I would kill for a $12 ticket with all you can eat hot dogs :)

Apr 22, 2011 11:47 AM
rating: 0
 
AWBenkert

2011 might be known as the year of the Great Red Sox collapse - how prescient!

Oct 29, 2011 06:55 AM
rating: 0
 
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